9/11 Changed Some Things

Carlos Latuff on Twitter: "Cartoons on the #September11 World Trade Center attack (2001/2011) #NeverForget… "By Frank Blechman

The media, with appropriate solemnity, has spent the last week revisiting the events of September 11, 2001, when four hijacked planes crashed into American landmarks and a field killing thousands, and shaking America’s sense of invulnerability. Endlessly, media spokespeople have repeated the common phrase of that time, “This changes (now, ‘this changed’) everything.”

The terrorist attacks of that day, while horrifying and tragic, did not change much for me.

In my head, I already knew that there were people and groups elsewhere in the world that did not like me or my country and would try to kill me if they had the chance. Attacks on the World Trade Center in New York (1993), Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia (1996), US embassies in East Africa (1998), and the USS Cole in Yemen (2000) gave current clarity on that subject.

Physically, I was in meetings at GMU that morning. I came out of one, was informed that airplanes had struck New York and the Pentagon, and went right back into another session. I came out of that one, was told that the World Trade Centers had “collapsed,” wondered what that meant (I couldn’t picture it), and went on to the next closed-door conversation. My work went on.

It was only late in the afternoon when I went home for dinner and found my family, glued to the TV watching the towers fall over and over (and over) again, that I began to appreciate how most people’s lives had suddenly been redirected toward this one single image.

Over the next few days, as our leaders began to articulate their reactions and responses, I knew that they would overreact, which they did. I did not know for certain, but feared, that our overreaction would include brutality and war. I did not think, at that time, that our response would involve abandoning principles (such as outlawing torture) that we had worked hard to put into place.

When we actually went to war, I watched from a safe distance, as most of us did. I was not surprised when airport security, and government intrusion increased. I didn’t worry about those things a lot, because no draft threatened my children, I didn’t fly much, and had few illusions about my “privacy” before the Patriot Act went into effect. I hoped, I cannot now explain why, that we would not make a mess of Afghanistan and Iraq. My life went on.

Of course, I had the luxury of distance from all this trauma because I was an American male…. I was not Muslim.

Of course, I had the luxury of distance from all this trauma because I was an American male, with a good secure job, under little personal threat. I was not Muslim. My Middle Eastern students felt the chill immediately. For them, their futures in their home countries were uncertain, but their welcome here was under threat, too. Suddenly, the “bad guys” in dramas and literature were all shadowy Middle Eastern terrorists. For a brief instant, my Hispanic and African American friends who worried about being mistaken for drug dealers or terrorists were relieved to find somebody else in the role of “most feared (and hated) other.”

Eventually, some of the terror did touch home. My high-school-age son was dating a girl whose father was killed at the Pentagon that day. Other friends in both the uniformed and clandestine services were suddenly deployed somewhere; they couldn’t tell me where. As news began to leak out about how the Global War on Terror (GWOT) was being conducted, I had to consider what I could do to oppose the worst my country was up to. Yet, even then, my work and life went on mostly unchanged. Even when I left GMU the next year to return full-time to political activism, my day-to-day experience was little shaped by 9/11.

In last week’s column, I suggested that we can now begin to ask, “What’s next?” So far, I have heard very little new thinking or clear ideas. Maybe now, with our troop presence in Afghanistan and Iraq ended, and the 20th anniversary of 9/11 observed, perhaps we can begin to discuss what we mean when we talk about our “national interests,” and what tools we would use if, as pundits suggest, Afghanistan or some other country becomes a new base for those who wish us harm. If the use of military force is really a “last resort” after all other efforts have been exhausted, what are those “all other” efforts? Thirty years ago we created a United States Institute for Peace to organize this kind of thinking. What does the USIP have to say now? What have we, as a nation, learned in the last 20 years to help us handle the next challenge more successfully?

I would like to think that we understand better the cost of unresolved conflict. Thirty years ago, our diplomatic, intelligence, and military leaders understood that fundamentalist factions within the world of Islam were deeply grieved about the behavior and impact of European and American institutions on their cultures. We believed that their grievances could not hurt us. We were wrong.

I would like to think that we understand better how ineffective military tools developed for major power conflicts can be in an asymmetrical culture war. Despite lessons drawn from our experience in Vietnam, “counter-insurgency” and “counter-terrorism” were small special operations sidelines, not central strategies. Again, we were wrong. We still don’t have a coherent plan to respond to these challenges.

Twenty years ago, our diplomatic and intelligence services were woefully short of resources to even understand the communications coming out of the Middle East. Today we are better equipped with native speakers, but not much advanced in cultural competence to know what those messages really mean. And our attention to and resources in Africa remain inadequate to see trouble brewing there.

Most dangerously, we have not built mechanisms to even slow down, much less prevent, our own overreaction to the next challenge.

Most dangerously, we have not built mechanisms to even slow down, much less prevent, our own overreaction to the next challenge.

So: Not everything has changed. A lot more needs to change. I wish we knew how much time we have. But we don’t.


Categories: Issues, Local, National, State

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