A reflection offered at a service on the fifth anniversary of September 11th at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Five years ago on this day, 19 angry and ideologically motivated men took on a task which resulted in the death of almost 3,000 innocent people, injury of over 5,000 more, and the destruction of several landmark buildings in New York City and the District of Columbia. This was the deadliest attack America has ever experienced since its birth.
As we look back to that horrible event and those painful days, we still wonder what that event has meant to us and the rest of the world up to now, and what its effects will be on future events. September 11 can be analyzed from various angels and through different lenses. Surely, this event has amounted to a lot more than what we thought it would be at the time, and day by day it gains meanings and significance far beyond our imagination. It has certainly turned our sense of certainty into an extraordinary sense of uncertainty, and likewise, our security into insecurity.
As tragic as this event has been, it would be more tragic if in our attempt to contain its effects we lost the sight of its causes, or worse, to use that event for partisan political gains and narrow ideological agendas — be it at home or abroad. Yet, a closer look at what happened and how we reacted to it reveals much more about our inability to grapple with forces and realities that led to those chaotic events, than our ability to use overwhelming military power. September 11 has certainly changed the world, but more so ourselves.
While this event revealed the brutality of an enemy whom we did not know much about, it also revealed something about ourselves which we did not know about:
Who would have thought
that the loss of 3,000 lives in New York City would have brought so much sympathy for the victims’ families and the United States, even from those who still do not wish us well?
that the anger of a CIA recruit in the war against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan would have turned against his master and unleash one of the most vicious campaigns against the American presence in the Middle East?
that Osama Bin Laden and his colleagues would succeed to tap into the reservoir of Anti-Americanism in the region and recruit hundreds and thousands of young men who willingly accept to blow themselves up in order to inflict damage on their enemies?
Who would have imagined
that the deadly attack on the Twin Towers would have lead the United States to topple a government in Afghanistan whose deputies’ years back were our guests for improving economic relations and establishing a new oil and gas pipeline through their country?
that the U.S. Administration would have been diverted from search for Al-Qaeda leaders to pursuing an ambitious project for redefining the Middle East according to a plan designed several years prior to September 11?
Who would have thought
that some among us would invent evidence, fabricate intelligence, distort history, deceive our own people, and manipulate other nations in order to topple a dictator whose adventurism posed no immediate danger to our country or our allies?
that we would forget the lessons of our previous imperial adventures and put our young men and women in the position of occupying other countries again?
that a terrorist attack would lead us to declare an open-ended war on terror as a defining paradigm for the new century?
Who would have guessed
that our war on terror would produce secret jails, rendition programs, coercive psychological procedures, enhanced interrogation techniques, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, Mahmudiya, and thousands of American, Iraqi, Lebanese, and Afghani corpses?
that those who wished to replace the fight against communism with a “clash of civilization” would succeed in pulling America against Muslims and setting in motion a “civil war” within Islam?
that we would allow some to wrap themselves with flag and sell their dogmatic ideas to us in a security platter?
that our anti-terror measures would turn into a witch hunt against Muslim Americans and turn them into a besieged minority?
that we would forget the lessons of civil rights movement and begin to limit the rights for which our parents had fought hard?
Yet, all these scenarios have happened, no matter how we interpret them. As Americans, we are wounded and now have wounded others. We are terrorized from within and without. We are attacked by those who do not like our policies, are not intimidated by our military might, and remain impartial to our economic power. We are confronting militant Muslim groups who are using every mistake we have made in our relationship with the Muslim world, and every misgiving they have had about our politics to settle scores with us.
Yet, we are also under an ideological attack by those who wish to replace reason with weapon, tear with fear, and negotiation with domination. We have beefed up our borders but lost the sense of our own social order. We have forgotten our liberal values of distributive justice and have chosen to deal with the rest of the world through retributive justice. Nations are either with us or against us.
Despite our differences in religion, ethnicity, and nationality, we share with others values of human rights and dignity. These values are not alien concepts to our faith, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and so on. All these religions ask their followers to live out their faith by seeking justice and preserving human lives and dignity. Human rights are universal values which are secured through dialogue, education, and communication rather than war, invasion, and imposition of one’s will upon others. We live in a world which should be safe for all of us, and not just for some of us. We gain a sense of safety if we promote mutual understanding and respect, rather than domination and conformity.
The death of innocent Americans is to be honored and their murderers should be brought to justice. But, our approach for finding the perpetrators should be formulated according to our democratic values, not to those which violate them. If we choose to fight extremism by extremism, as it seems we have been doing at times, we have rewarded our enemy by giving up the very values we wish them to adopt. As we work with other nations, religious groups, and people, we have to seek justice for all and not for ourselves alone.
Let’s remember the victims of September 11 and all other Americans who have fought for human dignity, democracy, and civil rights. As Americans, they all are to be remembered with the same respect and vigilance that we cherish in our own lives today.
Ali Akbar Mahdi is Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology in Ohio Wesleyan University.