11 Years After an Act of Terrorism

This blog started 2 years ago today.  The principal purpose of the Liberal Ironist is to offer political and moral opinion aimed at the lessening of human cruelty and the harshness of life (the aim and tendency of political Liberalism), and to offer a warning that our understandings of the Universe and our grasp of the good at their best are never more than another way of being human (which is the starting insight of the ironist).  2 years after this blog’s founding, we mark 11 years since a brazen act of mass murder by a very different political species–reactionary fanatics.

The terrorism of September 11, 2001 was the work of those who believed they had divine license to kill 3,000 people–principally American civilians but also foreigners and (a simple matter of probability with such indiscriminate killing in an urban area) their at least nominally fellow-Muslims.  This act of terrorism was carried out principally because of xenophobia; at the time the United States had thousands of soldiers–withdrawn by the Bush Administration following the invasion and occupation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq–stationed in Saudia Arabia, homeland to the 2 holiest cities in the Islamic tradition.  The other reason for that act of mass murder was the United States’ support for the State of Israel, which these terrorists believed to be a Crusader state.  While this blog on principal countenances criticism of particular Israeli policies as legitimate both as part of its aim to advance humane treatment of one another and as essential to the health of any democratic polity, it is noteworthy that the same terrorists who were so obtuse in including about 3,000 non-combatants at work in their home cities as legitimate targets of a war were also obtuse in seeing no difference between a political controversy between 2 nations seeking a homeland now and a murderous invasion fought on religious pretexts that essentially sought to plunder rich Arab cities about 900 years ago.  The vain masterminds of September 11th  (whom, whether they have died grisly deaths, been incarcerated by the United States, or remain at large in Pakistan are all greatly-diminished and far from home) seemed to enjoy admonishing us with references to history, but the crudeness of their obsession with fitting-in to that history (and their rage against their own inability to control events) is more-striking than their crude understanding of that history.

Both as a people and through the mustered force of their government, Americans have done both great and stupid things in response to the terrorist threat that reared its head on September 11, 2001.  Many Americans turned-out to clear the wreckage of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan; meanwhile, George W. Bush’s Environmental Protection Agency assured Lower Manhattan residents and relief workers that their air was safe to breathe.  This lie led to respiratory illnesses and cancers among 70% of the first-responders at Ground Zero by as early as 2006; cancers from respiratory exposure to extremely-toxic asbestos may take decades to develop.  Then-New York Governor George Pataki established a compensation fund that expanded State death benefits for first responders who died from cancer following relief work at Ground Zero, but Federal action had to wait for the 112th Congress and the Obama Administration, whose compromise with Senate Republicans on tax cuts for the rich ended a filibuster and finally allowed passage of the James Zadroga Health And Compensation Act of 2010.  While there were scattered reportings of violent and at times deadly hate crimes–not just against Muslims but also against Sikhs and Hindus, whose religion wasn’t even nominally associated with the September 11th attacks–America as a whole did not regress 100 years in its social relations with minority groups.  That said, there was regression, both in the broad discretionary police powers of the USA PATRIOT Act (some of which had originally been proposed nearly 20 years before as measures to fight drug smuggling) and in the seizure of large numbers of American Muslims and Muslim immigrants on suspicion of material support for terrorism.  First opened to receive inmates in January 2002, the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp was originally created on the reasoning that, being located at the US Navy base in Cuba, it was outside the jurisdiction of our country’s legal system.  779 men have been in carcerated at Guantanamo Bay on terrorism charges since that time; 600 have been released and 8 have died at the camp, including 6 suicides.  169 prisoners remain at Guantanamo Bay, half of whom have been cleared for release but remain in detention.  Today the prison is well-below it largest extent, and so far from the initial confusion and at times clumsy reaction following September 11th, both the number of those detained at the facility and their treatment is probably more-commensurate with the inmates’ suspected crimes.  Still, an untold number were simply wrongfully-detained, and the legal and moral snarl created both by their wrongful imprisonment and the torture or abuse of innocent and guilty alike at Guantanamo Bay may never be resolved.  And the allegations of abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay occurred in the shadow of far more-widespread cruelties committed against suspected enemy combatants at Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s old torture prison, after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

It warrants mention that President George W. Bush was good-enough to clarify that we were at war with a particular terrorist group and group of political ideologists, not with the religion of Islam and not with Muslims generally.  You may say it was a common-sense thing to say, but the truth is he didn’t have to say it, and doing so certainly had a positive effect in grounding our thoughts in the uncertain months ahead.  Let us not forget the times when evils were averted with the right words.

Our invasion of Afghanistan to root-out al-Qaeda and their protectors, the Taliban, was fought pretty cleanly as nationwide invasions go.  Owing to its poverty, long history of war, minimal infrastructure or commerce, and the ease with which these factors feed into political corruption, the chances of Afghanistan actually consolidating a democracy remain poor.  But we did try to develop a democracy in that country, and the arrival of US forces in Afghanistan brought the extreme oppression of the Taliban mostly to an end.  It is atypical in history for counterattacks to be waged so little in the spirit of revenge.  Of course, this war of such comparatively narrow scope and justification was followed by the Iraq War.

4,805 Allied soldiers and 1,554 security contractors (read: mercenaries) killed.  16,623 soldiers of the new Iraqi government we created killed by Iraqi insurgents to-date.  A projected total price tag to the United States of about $1.9 trillion.  Oh, and if anyone is keeping track, over 110,000 Iraqi civilians killed.  Note that these figures are just of US and allied military forces and civilian bystanders; I haven’t even listed the toll of enemy combatants killed.  This is harm we have visited upon ourselves and upon foreign innocents.  When the dust settled, we found Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction.  I felt much ambivalence about mentioning some of these misadventures of ours–this one in particular–because I know people are hurting and that I risk provoking partisan dispute on a day our entire country was wounded; but it occurred to me that such an episode, combining a failure of the media to ask important questions, of a majority of the public to stay informed and ask follow-up questions, and of top State, intelligence and Defense officials to see past their own wishful suppositions, has to be seen for what it is.  The Iraq War was an ideological blunder of epic proportions that cannot be understood outside of the sense of insecurity we felt in the wake of September 11, 2001.  We have learned some valuable lessons from our mistakes of that time, but this mitigating fact still leaves me with a heavy heart, because we could have perceived in advance the lessons that we apparently had to learn from blunt experience, and those lessons cost us (and a country that had nothing to do with September 11th) dearly.

To our great credit, in the end we didn’t “learn” the worst possible lessons from this experience.  We didn’t “learn” that the entire Middle East is incorrigible, nor did we “learn” that foreign interventions were never worth the trouble or expense.  Our grim experience in Iraq probably retarded our response at the cost of Rebel lives, but the NATO intervention in Libya, jointly spearheaded by UK, French, and US forces, brought a murderous tyrant’s 42-year rule to an end and gave a home-grown movement for democracy an unprecedented chance there.  Rather than be overtaken by hysterical fear over Islamists, we have cautiously maintained relations with the strategically-significant governments of Egypt and Yemen as their people deposed long-running dictators, asking the old guard to stand aside in deference to popular sovereignty and offering assistance as transitional governments seek to consolidate democratic change.  We have done a lot of good–and where the good that needed to be done has been better-suited to those who live in the countries in question, our leadership and we ourselves seem to have grown in wisdom and perspective, letting oppressed peoples take the initiative in taking government into their own hands when they’re ready and offering assistance when needed.

We also continue to kill or imprison the masterminds and pawns of al-Qaeda.  A complicated–indeed, seemingly-contradictory–resolve seems to be needed to defend civlization against terror without submerging one’s awareness in messianic license. Americans often view themselves as standing outside of history.  This myth allows us to make mistakes (including serious mistakes) for want of perspective, but it also allows us to transcend those mistakes faster than the politics or shared perceptions of other societies might.  I won’t stoop to pretending we always do right or that the history of the World is our story alone.  But we have seen the precipice and pulled back before, and when errors or injustices come to light we make a change.  We owe this capacity to adaptation both to our political institutions and the respect for it that is a basic part of our culture.  I am proud of how far we have come, and of the common concern of Americans, in spite of the differences that motivate it, that we must remain vigilant.

May the day’s recollections be sober but not ache, may you demand justice without malice or prejudice, and may you find, as you celebrate what you love, that those you might not understand are nonetheless good–worthy not only of life, but of freedom also.

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