What we have (and haven’t)
learned about America since 9/11
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / September 13, 2011
The horrific attack on the United States on 9/11/01 brought out America’s essential character traits in ways that bin Laden could not have anticipated. Some of those traits are positive and some negative. Without question, the brightest and most shining period since 9/11 began on that day and continued for many months as all America seemed drawn together by the calamity of massive terrorism on American soil.
1. Rallying together in a time of crisis. The firefighters, police, and ordinary citizens who responded to the disastrous crash of two planes into the World Trade Center showed that many, if not most, Americans care about their fellow human beings. And those who responded came from all over the United States. This happens after most natural disasters as well, demonstrating that part of America’s basic character is to help one another in time of need.
There were (and continue to be) symbolic signs of that concern. Businesses and offices all over America have signs that read something like “9/11, we will never forget.” I paid a bill recently that included this statement on the pre-printed form.
Although I am not sure exactly what it means to suggest that something has happened that we will never forget, I take it as a sincere effort to express a continuing concern for those who died and were injured in the aftermath of that tragedy. If the reference means something about not forgetting who committed the dastardly act of 9/11, I’m not sure that is useful, especially since most of the apparent perpetrators are dead 10 years later.
2. The use of fear to diminish our freedom. As is true of so many opportunists, the Bush administration wasted no time in proposing and having passed laws that have limited our freedoms here in the U.S. No longer do I enjoy air travel because of the ordeal of security screening and suspicion to which air travelers are subjected.
But that is a minor diminution of our freedoms compared to the FBI’s administrative letters, which amount to non-judicial search warrants into our private lives through access without our knowledge to library records, email, and telephonic communications. These laws and many others were gained by appeals to our fear that unless Congress gave the administration these extraordinary powers, we could not be protected from more terrorist acts. Yet there is little evidence that such intrusions into our privacy have actually prevented terrorist acts.
3. American adherence to violence as the default response to violence. Our government decided quickly that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 terror, assisted partly by his rush to take credit for the murders, a boast that proves nothing about his guilt. In fact, evidence of his participation in 9/11, if it exists, has never been provided to the public or in a court in sufficient detail to satisfy any criminal standard of proof of guilt. On the other hand, I have no reason to think that bin Laden wasn’t guilty of planning and funding the attacks of 9/11.
US officials demanded that bin Laden and his operatives be turned over to the U.S. government. The Taliban offered to try bin Laden in their courts if we would give them evidence of his responsibility. We refused and began the Afghanistan War to kill or capture bin Laden and punish the Taliban for not doing what we told them to do.
Inexplicably, Bush’s commanders let bin Laden escape into Pakistan, either intentionally or through incompetence. His escape from Afghanistan was remedied nearly 10 years later by the actions of another president who sent 79 Navy SEALs on a mission to kill bin Laden. There was no effort to capture him. Although the early military propaganda suggested that it was a capture or kill mission, we have learned now that it was always a mission to assassinate him.
The SEALs encountered little armed opposition, bin Laden himself was not armed, and one of his wives was shot when she tried to protect him by lunging at the SEALs with her body. The mission was undertaken in violation of U.S. treaties, the principles enunciated at Nuremberg, and widely-accepted international law, all of which we claim to follow.
4. The manipulation of Americans by ideologues. The war in Afghanistan was not our only response to 9/11. It was followed in 2003 by the war in Iraq, an invasion made possible by the actions, misjudgments, lies, and ideology of those in the Bush administration termed neoconservatives.
The U.S. invaded Iraq without provocation or international legal justification. Such an invasion was termed by Justice Robert Jackson, Chief Counsel for the United States at Nuremberg, as a “supreme international crime” — the crime of unprovoked aggression of one country against another. Justice Jackson said in his opening statement to the Nuremberg Tribunal that an aggressor is a state that is the first to invade with “its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war, … the territory of another State.”
I have never read or heard anyone deny that this is precisely what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their minions did.
The invasion of Iraq was brought about by appeals to fear, revenge, revulsion at Saddam, and the lie that Saddam had something to do with the atrocities of 9/11, a false belief held by 70% of the American public in 2003.
5. America’s inability to understand the history of another people. Both the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq were based on a fundamental failure to understand the history and culture of the people who live in both of those countries.
In Iraq, the U.S. did not appreciate the religious and ethnic divisions in the country. A minority Sunni population (Saddam’s group) had by violence controlled the majority Shiite population and the small Kurdish population for decades. When those controls broke down, decades of pent-up anger exploded into internecine conflict.
Terrorists aligned with al Queda exacerbated the violence and internal conflict in Iraq. Before we started this war, al Queda had never operated in Iraq. Our invasion expanded al Queda operations, rather than diminishing its influence.
In Afghanistan, we failed to appreciate the fact that this country had never had a successful central governmental authority. It was ruled by tribal connections and inter-tribal alliances that shifted from time to time. Although few Afghans liked the Taliban, the Taliban had been able to bring some order to the country, and tribal alliances continued to function.
What we ignored was the history of the last thousand years: no outside power has ever been able to control the Afghan population for long. We should have known this, since we helped bring the Taliban to power and enhanced the role of bin Laden in the region in order to defeat the Soviets, who tried for 10 years to establish control of that country. Trying to control Afghanistan from the outside is a fool’s mission, and we continue to act like fools.
6. Our failure to fulfill our obligations to our military men and women. I have never liked the volunteer military because it fails to spread the burden of war evenly. It exploits people in need of a job — any job. Military recruiters are famous for making false promises to get prospects to sign up. And the military itself is unlike any other employer. It can change the terms of any contracts and require enlistees to work beyond their commitments.
During the early years of the Afghan and Iraq wars, the use of stop-loss practices were widespread. These practices required service men and women to stay in the military against their will. Most people who sign up for military service are not aware of just how difficult their lives may become for them and their families as a result of their service.
At least 150,000 veterans are now homeless. According to a 2008 study, veterans are three times as likely as those in the general population to commit suicide. The VA’s data show that four to five veterans commit suicide every day. Each year, there are about 1,000 suicide attempts among veterans seen in VA medical facilities.
About 300,000 (20%) veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression. About 320,000 additional returning veterans of those two conflicts may suffer from traumatic brain injuries incurred during deployment.
In spite of all we ask of members of the military, powerful forces in Congress play games with funding for veterans. Many veterans still report unconscionable delays in getting services from the VA. These two Middle East wars have been hell for those sent to fight them and for their families, yet they have not received the financial, medical, and social support that should be their due when their military service is over.
7. A “War on Terror” was the wrong approach to 9/11 terrorism. Our intelligence services knew enough about the plans for 9/11 to have prevented the terrorism from happening. Their primary failure was their unwillingness to share information among agencies and within agencies. The balkanization of the intelligence services and the lack of focused leadership from the Bush administration kept the right people from seeing what was right before their eyes.
Bush did not take the threat from al Queda seriously, possibly because some of the information was developed before his administration came to power. The failures cascaded through the entire intelligence-gathering apparatus of government from the top down, from down up, and among all levels. We can only hope that these problems have been resolved.
But the greatest failure in approaching terror was to treat it as a war. The best example of this is the process that led to the killing of bin Laden. For several years, intelligence gathering about bin Laden’s network of family, friends, and associates was carefully monitored much as the FBI might investigate an organized crime syndicate. Once sufficient information about bin Laden’s location was discovered, a plan was developed to get him.
While military assets were involved all along the way, the approach was essentially a criminal investigation, not a military approach. Had this approach been undertaken 10 years ago, it is likely that bin Laden would have been killed or captured much sooner, especially if this had been done before the war in Afghanistan had started and while bin Laden was still in that country. And both the wars in the Middle East might have been avoided, saving American taxpayers as much as $3-5 trillion, according to the calculations of economist Joseph Stiglitz and others.
8. Torture of prisoners continues. What we learned about torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and at rendition sites all over the world earlier in these two wars is continuing under the Obama administration according to reports from the BBC. Much of the current torture is occurring at secret sites at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and at rendition sites, carried out by regimes that don’t pretend to have scruples against torture.
Now that Dick Cheney freely admits in his new book to approving and encouraging torture during the Bush administration, there is no excuse not to hold him and others accountable for their crimes, except that to do so will put members of the Obama administration in jeopardy also.
Cheney’s position on torture is so weak that Colin Powell’s former aide Col. Lawrence Wilkerson has indicated his willingness to testify against him if Cheney is ever prosecuted for his war crimes. The treatment of detainees by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and those who followed their orders, violated the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. We are signatories to those conventions, meaning that they are the law in the U.S.
There are many more things that 9/11 and the events of these 10 years have taught us about America. I only wish that more positive lessons came to mind. In large part, the U.S. has behaved exceptionally badly, even criminally, but I don’t expect our actions to improve soon, nor do I expect that either this country or its leaders will be held accountable by any international forum, or by anyone else for their criminal conduct. What I do believe is that we squandered the international good will that we had for a few months after 9/11 because of our bellicosity, our criminality, and our arrogance.
But the thought that keeps returning to me as I write about this recent history is that in order to avenge the deaths of 2,977 people who perished in the 9/11 attacks, we have killed over a million innocent civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere in the Middle East, and terrorized millions of others. To exact a toll for terrorism committed by a few deluded, if not deranged individuals, we have ourselves become terrorists.
[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]