It has been ten years since the fateful attacks of September 11, 2001. These attacks had a dramatic impact on the world and fundamentally shifted the direction of international politics. Although I recognize that much ink has been spilt on this issue already, I feel compelled to add my own personal reflections on these events. 911 had a direct impact on my life’s trajectory and through this post I aim to highlight some of its effects on me, America, and the world. I believe that we must reflect on the past if we hope to create a better, more positive future. If we do not, we will continue down our current path of perdition.
On 911, I was in the 10th grade at King High School in Tampa, Florida. I heard about the attacks just as I was about to leave my homeroom class that morning. I had been chatting with the always affable Mr. Carrell when an 11th grader came in and told us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York. We immediately checked the TV and, sure enough, there was footage playing of the burning World Trade Center. With that image in mind and having no idea what was going on, I headed over to Spanish class.
My memory of the rest of the day is a bit foggy but there are a few memorable moments that I do recall. I remember going into Mr. Cimorra’s Spanish class and doing our classwork as though nothing had happened. I remember going into my AP European History class and having an epic conversation on what was going on in the world. I led that discussion, even though I only had – at best – a very rudimentary knowledge of global politics. It seemed to me that something dramatic had happened based on the sketchy information that was available at the time and that this event would have global reverberations well into the future.
The news media and government almost immediately blamed the attacks on a loosely defined organization known as Al Qaeda, led by the former CIA-trained Osama Bin Laden. He was hiding out in Afghanistan at the time and President Bush belligerently declared to the world that “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” Although the Taliban had offered to hand over Osama Bin Laden for a trial to a neutral third country, the Bush Administration would hear none of it. Instead, President Bush preferred to entertain a Manichean fantasy in which the good guys – i.e. America – would righteously destroy evil doers all over the world in an epic war of terror.
For me, these events ushered in a period of intense personal growth. To say that I was at an impressionable age is a bit of an understatement. These attacks marked for me an awareness of my “Otherness,” since I was a foreign-born Muslim in a country whose President had decided to launch a “crusade” on evil doers who were exclusively Muslim. But why was the US doing this? And why was it targeting the Muslim world? I did not know the answer to these and similar questions, but I wanted to find these answers. I needed to know how and why this happened, both to satisfy my interest and to also be able to partially answer these questions for others. I thus set off on a multi-year journey to understand the broad arc of global history. What I found was that the more I learned, the more questions I had. After some time, I had managed to pick up a decent amount of history, but I was constantly in need of more answers. I became a sponge trying to understand the world. Every event was interrelated and so I had to keep digging deeper and deeper for more and more knowledge.
The journey for answers has taken me all over the world and I now can make some educated statements about 911, its consequences, and global significance. Although I recognize that it is next to impossible to cover these topics briefly, I will still attempt to grapple with some key themes.
911 was the direct result of terrible American foreign policy choices. By choosing to arm “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 80s, we laid the seeds for future attacks against America. By giving Iraq a green-light to invade Kuwait in 1990, we set the basis for the new unipolar world. We went ahead and attacked Iraq for invading Kuwait which, in turn, inspired Osama Bin Laden to launch a global jihad against America. The raison d'être for Osama Bin Laden and his ilk would have been eliminated had the US not based troops in Saudi Arabia and offered unconditional support for all Israeli policies.
As tragic as 911 was, the events of that day pale in comparison to what has happened since then. The US has doubled-down on failed foreign policy positions and has decided to fight fire with fire. The US launched immoral and illegal wars abroad, which caused the needless death of hundreds and thousands of innocent civilians. The hubris of imperial overstretch has drained our treasury and cost us our moral standing in the world. We have seen the evisceration of the rule of law and our government has destroyed core civil liberties in the name of security. Finally, the coup de grâce has been the bipartisan consolidation of the corporate/national-security state.
But how should we move forward? Since we have collectively destroyed the basis of our individual-rights based social compact, should we be like the Chinese and adopt a more collectivist approach to rights? Is it necessary to do so to deal with the myriad of problems that we face, from massive environmental degradation to increased competition over scarce resources? Should we continue to wage endless wars abroad and be distracted by the kabuki theater of electoral politics? Or should we demand more from our leaders, like much of the pro-democracy activists have been across the Middle East? And if we do, will we be coopted by counter-revolutionaries, as is the norm? Is it even possible to expect change, when we fall for craven salesman like Obama who offers us the Madison Avenue type of change that feeds us with the same – albeit more articulate – bullshit?
Honestly, I have no idea the answer to these questions. For America, our government behaves more like an African anocracy rather than a global superpower. And yet, there is hope in other parts of the globe. Much of Latin America has seen the rise of populist governments that have been more receptive and responsive to the needs of their people. Turkey has emerged as a regional power in the Middle East and an inspiration for the entire Muslim world. The so called “rise of the rest” has seen the redistribution of global wealth to many developing countries around the world and the improvement of millions of people’s standards of living. All of these things are positive indicators of change, but we need to do so much more.
We as a species have long since passed the point of no return. We are burning through more resources than our earth can replenish and yet we continue to maim and kill each other around the world. Although it is true that deaths from global conflict have dropped substantially and that there are many positive indicators across the developing world, there are still many changes that need to be made. If we as individuals can resolve to treat each other with respect, humility, and patience our species may yet still have a chance. Most importantly, we must truly want the best for our brothers and sisters around the world, and meet others with empathy and love, not arrogance and hatred. Then perhaps we can begin to make our Eden here instead of waiting for it in the sky above.