Twenty years after: Where is the wisdom?Friday, September 10, 2021
This September 11 is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11/2001 terror attacks. Twenty years is a long time. What are the lessons learnt from the US's response to the attacks? The mistakes?
The vile attacks shocked the country. And, in response, George W Bush declared a war on terror. The war was fought on two fronts — domestic and abroad. And, just as innocent Americans suffered as a result of the 9/11 attacks, innocent people at home and abroad suffered from the US's response.
President George W Bush started two wars. Afghanistan was invaded because the Taliban had been entertaining the presence of al-Qaeda. Iraq was invaded because President Bush thought that Iraq was a threat to be pre-empted.
Worldwide, there was an outpouring of sympathy and goodwill toward the US in the aftermath. But America's decisions in response to the attacks depleted the goodwill. Millions of foreigners suffered because of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And, just as the suffering of Americans on 9/11 was televised, so too was the suffering of the Iraqi and Afghan people.
Was war the only way to respond to the terror attacks? Were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq morally justified? Was this the best/wisest response to the attacks? How many Americans died in the terror attacks? How many Americans died in the country's response to the attacks? How much did the response cost in blood and treasure?
Law enforcement, post 9/11, was given the mandate to prevent other attacks. Their strategy was to cast a big net, in which tens of thousands of people – mainly Arabs and Muslims – were caught. How many were charged for the 9/11 attacks? How many faced terror charges? None.
Overwhelmingly, Arab and Muslim visa overstayers were the ones who paid the price. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft, in his book Never Again: Securing America and Restoring Justice, admits that, of the thousands caught in the dragnet, no one could be identified as having ties to terrorism or terrorist organisations.
This year's 20th anniversary coincides with President Joe Biden's withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan – twenty years, a trillion dollars spent, and the Taliban is back in power. Was war the best response? Was Bush's decision to treat the Taliban and al-Qaeda as one and the same a smart decision?
Then newly elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai wanted to reach out to a defeated Taliban and include them in Government, but Bush refused to support this tactic. That decision led to a lengthy occupation of Afghanistan by the US and its allies, which ended in a negotiated withdrawal – with none other than the Taliban responsible for the security of the withdrawing Americans.
The decision to withdraw was right, despite the seemingly disorganised and thoughtless manner in which it was handled. Giving up in that fashion was inevitable, given that after almost a trillion dollars was spent on the Afghanistan project, the Afghan armed forces disappeared and could offer little or no defence against the Taliban. It had long been known that Afghanistan was a failed project;nevertheless, the US continued to maintain troops in the country.
Leaders have to take hard decisions. We need wise leaders who don't take decisions to cater to the sensational news cycle. This requires wise policies and wise approaches. Terrorist organisations have a free hand to hurt civilians to achieve their goals. Democracies that believe in human rights should always think of the best approach to minimise the suffering of innocent civilians. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq inflicted massive suffering on innocent civilians. The big law enforcement net cast in the US caused avoidable suffering to citizens and non-citizens in the US.
The 20th anniversary of September 11 should serve as an occasion to reflect and draw on the hard lessons. Why use a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed? Is acting tough synonymous with acting wise?
In the darkness of our post-9/11 world, there were moments of light and hope. Some wanted to be a part of the solution, to light a candle in the darkness. BRIDGES (Building Respect in Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity), a successful partnership between federal law enforcement agencies and leaders in the Arab American and Middle Eastern communities, was born right after the 9/11 attacks. Acting on the advice of the late Senator Carl Levin, the outstanding former US attorney Jeffrey Collins and I co-founded BRIDGES. It became a national and international model for law enforcement-community engagement. We tried to do damage control.
Like many fellow Americans, 9/11 is a day seared in my memory. On that day I flew from Detroit to Washington, DC. I did not know that the country was under attack until the plane landed. It was horrible. My children were less six years old at the time. They still recall the images they saw on TV and still recall being worryied about me. Simply put, on that day, I could have been one of two things – a victim or a suspect.
Some think the American withdrawal from Afghanistan 20 years after the attacks closes that dark chapter and its legacies. We can only hope.
Imad Hamad is the executive director of the American Human Rights Council (AHRC-USA). Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.