Lessons of 9/11 Still Unlearned

A week ago marked the 8-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. As we should on each and every Sept. 11, we remembered all those who lost their lives on that fateful day, as well as those who responded to the tragedy. At Arlington National Cemetery, President Obama remarked:

"We remember with reverence the lives we lost. We read their names. We press their photos to our hearts. And on this day that marks their death, we recall the beauty and meaning of their lives; men and women and children of every color and every creed, from across our nation and from more than 100 others. They were innocent. Harming no one, they went about their daily lives. Gone in a horrible instant, they now ‘dwell in the House of the Lord forever.’

"We honor all those who gave their lives so that others might live, and all the survivors who battled burns and wounds and helped each other rebuild their lives; men and women who gave life to that most simple of rules: I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper."

The president also called upon Americans to "renew our common purpose" and "remember how we came together as one nation, as one people, as Americans." According to Obama, "This may be the greatest lesson of this day, the strongest rebuke to those who attacked us, the highest tribute to those taken from us – that such sense of purpose need not be a fleeting moment."

However, there is a more important lesson to learn: Why were we attacked? Understandably, this is too difficult a question to pose on Sept. 11 given the emotions surrounding that day. But how many anniversaries have to pass before we address the question?

Of course, there are still those who believe we were attacked for "who we are" – which, at different times, has meant because we are a democracy and love freedom, because we represent modernity and progress, and because we are infidels, i.e., not Muslim (the classic Huntington clash of civilizations argument). Or in more simple terms, because we are good and they are evil.

Presumably, President Obama does not subscribe to this line of thinking. In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars – while still a U.S. senator – Obama talked about the need to alleviate the root causes of terrorism: poverty; the lack of education; conflict, anarchy, and collapsed or collapsing states. And according to this article about John Brennan, the current assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism:

"’Any comprehensive approach has to also address the upstream factors – the conditions that help fuel violent extremism,’ Brennan said. Military, intelligence, or law-enforcement actions are unable to confront those conditions, which he said include the ‘basic needs and legitimate grievances of ordinary people’ for prosperity, education, ‘dignity and worth,’ and security. ‘If we fail to confront the broader political, economic, and social conditions in which extremists thrive, then there will always be another recruit in the pipeline, another attack coming downstream,’ Brennan said."

But like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration continues to ignore the obvious: U.S. foreign policy – more precisely, U.S. interventionism.

Osama bin Laden could not have been more clear about U.S. interventionist policy being one of his main reasons for making the United States a target for terrorism. His August 1996 fatwa cites "the inability of the [Saudi] regime to protect the country, and allowing the enemy of the Ummah – the American crusader forces – to occupy the land for the longest of years." Another fatwa in February 1998 declared that it was "an individual duty of every Muslim who can do it [kill Americans] in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam."

The war in Iraq also demonstrates the link between intervention and terrorism. U.S. military occupation has fueled terrorist attacks in Iraq – including a truck bomb last week in the Mosul area that killed 20 people and wounded 27. The Spanish government’s support (under then-prime minister José Maria Aznar) for the Iraq War was claimed as a reason for the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid. The same reason was cited in a videotape by one of the bombers in the July 2005 London Tube and bus bombings.

Clearly, then-senator Barack Obama understood the connection between Iraq and terrorism when he spoke at an antiwar rally in October 2002: "I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda." What boggles the mind is that now-President Barack Obama cannot see that he is doing exactly that in Afghanistan – where, in a case of "surge envy," the deployment has grown to 68,000 U.S. troops and may get even larger. As long as the U.S. military is in Afghanistan, there will be civilian collateral damage associated with military operations (no matter how much care is taken to avoid such damage). Indeed, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) [.pdf], of the 1,103 recorded civilian casualties from January to June of this year, 310 were caused by international and national Afghan forces (compared to 276 for the same time period in 2008). Each of those killed represents a reason for a family member or friend to become a terrorist to avenge their death.

So why – eight years after 9/11 – do we still refuse to acknowledge that U.S. foreign policy fuels the flames that spark terrorism? Largely because we don’t want to be seen as blaming America or somehow implying that those who died deserved to be killed. The American people are not at fault for 9/11. Nor did anyone – American or otherwise – deserve to die.

But we have to be willing to recognize the cause-and-effect of U.S. policy as it relates to terrorism – which means admitting that not all U.S. policies are necessarily good (which is not the same thing as saying America and Americans are not good). It also means recognizing that policy is about substance, not style. So trying to do the same thing, just differently, is not a change in policy – regardless of a change in administration. It’s what we do, not how we do it, that matters.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.