Ending War, Finding True Peace
With a start the other day, I looked at some numbers on my computer screen and realized that the majority of first year students enrolling at Trinity this year were born after September 11, 2001. An entire generation has grown up after that terrible day with the same kind of historical distance that I once felt from the Korean War even though I was born a year before that conflict’s cease fire. This week, the nation will pause to observe the 20th Anniversary of the terrible day when the planes flew into the twin towers and the Pentagon, and one into a field in Pennsylvania. So hard to believe two decades have already passed. And yet, raw though the memories still seem, we do a disservice to current and future generations if all we do is pause to remember and then move on as if the artifact is the only thing of importance. It’s not. We have a duty to teach what it was we learned through September 11, and in order to teach we have to reach am more insightful understanding of what those lessons really are.
The longest war in American history ended last week, bitterly, tragically, and in so many ways, predictably. The War in Afghanistan was this nation’s response to September 11 because Afghanistan harbored terrorists, notably the leader of Al Quaeda and mastermind of September 11, Osama bin Laden. 20 years ago, when President George W. Bush declared war, he had the full support of Congress and most of the American people. Last week, when President Joseph Biden ended the war, his popularity ratings dropped precipitously and he garnered outrage and calls to resign from members of Congress and media pundits. Between Bush and Biden, Presidents Obama and Trump both vowed to end the Afghan war, but never did. Those of us old enough to remember the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war shuddered when images of helicopters lifting people from rooftops seemed to repeat history from Saigon to Kabul.
Watching a documentary about 9/11 the other evening, I found it hard once more to see the images of the planes hitting the World Trade Center — the smoke, the chaos, the bodies plunging from windows. I remember standing at the windows on 4th South of Main Hall seeing the smoke rise from the Pentagon. I remember being in Social Hall that morning as students, faculty and staff all came rushing in and rumors abounded about more planes coming and bombs all around and the real sense of immediate danger. For a few minutes, even I felt a sense of panic, and then I realized it was my job to keep calm and carry on — to do what, I wasn’t sure, but the first thing we did was open all offices so students could call families and loved ones. (We didn’t have cell phones then. Imagine! We didn’t have the Internet on campus then, either — we were so primitive. We had a single television in Social Hall and we all gathered ’round watching in utter horror as the towers melted on the screen.)
We made it through that day and the days thereafter, but feeling that nothing would ever be quite the same again. We learned to get used to airport security and the hassles of increased police presence just about everywhere, security cameras all over the place, seeing something and saying something. The president declared war, we stood and saluted, and we felt somehow virtuous that we had pulled together as a nation to fight the Bad Guys. A Good Guy — Barack Obama — finally killed the Bad Guy — Osama bin Laden — and we thought it was over.
It was not over.
Osama bin Laden and his demented disciples scrambled our national brains that day, and in the fog of war that followed we confused outraged vengeance with appropriate national defense. We indulged moronic cowboy talk from the commander in chief — “bring ’em to justice” — when the problem was not something Wyatt Earp could settle in the OK Corral. (Ok, just look it up if you don’t know what those references mean.)
We forgot to our sorrow that what the United States really can and should bring to the advancement of civilization is not vengeance but intelligence, not violence but solutions to violence, not isolationist xenophobia but hospitality for those we can help with our advanced knowledge and robust economy and generosity of spirit.
The toxic dust from September 11 settled deeply into the American soul, a poisonous residue with long-term effects in social fragmentation, a resurgence of blatant racism and hostility toward persons of other nationalities and cultures, especially Muslims and persons of Middle Eastern descent. In our confusion and amnesia, some Americans even began to believe in tyranny as a value worth electing, a necessity to “make America great again” as if the nation had not remained great all along. Conspiracy theories abounded; the election of Barack Obama in 2008, a source of hope and joy for millions of Americans, was a throttle increasing suspicion and hatred in other quarters. The “birther” conspiracy movement — claiming that President Obama was not born in the U.S. (along with the claim that he was Muslim) — clearly captured the radical xenophobia of the post-9/11 wingnuts who raged against anyone who seemed “other” than mainstream white. Gun ownership rose dramatically, with some Americans organizing into heavily armed private militia groups with names like Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters and others. They found the perfect cipher for their inchoate rage against “the other” in Donald Trump, a man of no apparent firm principles except his own aggrandizement, someone who easily assumed the persona of a demagogue spouting vengeful nonsense to rabid ralliers. In hindsight, the rabid ralliers’ riot and assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 — a genuine insurrection attempting to overthrow the legitimately elected government — was yet another dreadful consequence of September 11, 2001.
What have we learned from September 11 and the two decades since?
First, we have learned that no foreign actor — a nation state, a terrorist — is as powerful as our own people, for better or worse. We have the power to renew and replenish America in each generation, or we have the power to destroy it, to end this experiment in self-government that’s been going on for 232 years. We have seen our nation come together in awesome ways from time to time, and we have also seen our nation fragment and allow fringe actors to come close to destroying what we hold dear. Those who believe deeply in this nation as a place of freedom, equity and justice must work even harder to keep it intact, to make its promise a reality for more people who suffer on the margins.
Second, we learned once again in Afghanistan and Iraq, as we learned in Vietnam, that our own model of freedom and democracy cannot be imposed on other societies, and certainly not through war and violence. Military power is necessary for national defense, yes; but the weapons and tactics of war are ill-suited for building nations with distinctive cultures and heritages. America’s military defeats are not because we did not wield enough military power, but rather, because we did not exercise the cultural and social competence to understand deeply the places we thought we were helping.
Third, the bad actors — the terrorists, the tyrants, the demagogues and conspiracy theorists — they will always be with us. The question is whether we will allow them to dictate the terms of our governments, social organizations and way of life. We can either spend the next several generations in endless conflict and fear and repression of civil liberties in the hope of keeping some freedom, or we can choose and exert more hopeful, forward-thinking leadership to build the kind of good society we crave. It won’t happen by osmosis. We cannot just stand idly by and hope that some savior will come along. It’s up to us — We, the People — to be the leaders to create the kind of society we really want to live in.
I am wondering what Trinity can do for the women and children who are now Afghan refugees in the United States. I invite your ideas on this. In particular, it seems that we should be able to provide access to college for Afghan women who could thrive here. I welcome contact information for any agency we could work with on this project.
We should certainly remember September 11 and those who died. But if all we do is allow the memory to rekindle anger and resentment and hostility toward “the other” we will have dishonored those who gave so much. We must move on from the memory in the best of ways, redoubling our efforts to establish a nation that truly values peace within itself as well as abroad, that is able to bring the best of our economic and intellectual power to bear on finding solutions to the conditions that foster terrorism and fear. Ending war is not enough; we must find a way to engender hope and establish justice, which is the basis for true peace.