I had forgotten it was 9/11 today until a student wanted to know if we would have a shortened day. She was hoping the tragedy carried a holiday status. I found this rather disturbing: thousands of dead Americans and a Chinese student hoping to get time off school. But she’s a kid, so I cut her some slack.
I do not for a second, though, cut the American government slack for its actions post-9/11. This is the day that many will opine about the tragedy of that day, and while there is no doubt such reflection is well-deserved, it can easily blind us to the greater tragedy: what America has inflicted upon the world in the aftermath of 9/11.
Philip Giraldi at The American Conservative spells out the exact retribution:
By one not unreasonable estimate, as many as four million Muslims have died or been killed as a result of the ongoing conflicts that Washington has either initiated or been party to since 2001.
There are, in addition, millions of displaced persons who have lost their homes and livelihoods, many of whom are among the human wave currently engulfing Europe. There are currently an estimated 2,590,000 refugees who have fled their homes from Afghanistan, 370,000 from Iraq, 3,880,000 million from Syria, and 1,100,000 from Somalia. The United Nations Refugee Agency is expecting at least 130,000 refugees from Yemen as fighting in that country accelerates. Between 600,000 and one million Libyans are living precariously in neighboring Tunisia.
Giraldi assigns to America the lion’s share of blame for the chaos that has engulfed the Middle East, and while I’m apprehensive to chalk up such chaos to a single actor, it would be hard to argue that America was not the primary force that destabilized the region. There’s a black comedy at work here. We charged into the Middle East dealing out death and destruction to millions to “fix” a situation that had inculcated some terrorists who had killed a mere 2,777 Americans. The cure turned out to be far, far worse than the disease. Fortunately for us Americans, it is the Arabs, not us who are getting cured.
But why this overreaction? I know some explain the War on Terror in terms of the military-industrial complex tricking America into far-flung wars for the sake of profit, and I see some justification in that explanation, but I think there is something more basic at play in America’s gross over-reaction to 9/11. In fact, the reaction we got was almost exactly what you’d expect from a country with strong democratic tendencies.
George F. Kennan in his collection of lectures American Diplomacy but his finger on how this democratic character manifests itself in foreign policy:
Day before yesterday, let us say, the issues at take between ourselves and another power were not worth the life of a single American boy. Today, nothing else count at all; our cause is holy; the cost is no consideration; violence must know no limitations short of unconditional surrender…
I sometimes wonder whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath–in fact, you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.
Kennan delivered this address in 1952 and it’s still as fresh today as it was then. On his mind was Pearl Harbor and he was highly critical of the single-mindedness America approached the war and its demands for unconditional surrender. Considering our response to 9/11, not much has changed. We run into the fray with one thing on our mind, victory, and don’t consider the gap between our end goal and the costs the goal will accrue. Moderation is not a democracy’s cup of tea.
That said, perhaps we were manipulated into attacking Iraq by the reigning elites. But our democratic character was the necessary precondition for such manipulation in the first place. With or without the elites, we were going to break someone for that bloody September day.
But, and more importantly, we also have the largess of being a nation “with the soul of a church”. Going all the way back to the founding we Americans have had a high view of our political project: the rule of law, the bill of rights, a witness to the world of ordered liberty. With the coming of the progressive era, that vision of self transformed from being a mere witness to the good of our system to becoming a militant exporter. The Spanish-American war was preached (yes, preached) as a war of liberation. World War I likewise was depicted by Woodrow Wilson as a war for righteousness against the evil forces of monarchy and militarism. World War II was approached in more sober terms, but nonetheless was fought in the name of freedom and the destruction of tyranny. Truman and Eisenhower both framed the conflict with the USSR in spiritual terms (God vs. Atheism, quite literally).
The tragic irony is that even with our best of intentions (making the Middle East safe for democracy and human rights) in the wake of a tragic attack, we obtain hellish results. There is something full-blooded and deeply American about fighting for principles, but we must grow up and realize the limits of bombs in the name of freedom. Bombs destroy, that’s the easy part. It’s the rebuilding, and not mere buildings, where no nation, even the most powerful, is really in control of what happens on the ground.
There is a better way. As Kennan put it in an interview with the New York Review of Book:
This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable. If you think that our life here at home has meritorious aspects worthy of emulation by peoples elsewhere, the best way to recommend them is, as John Quincy Adams maintained, not by preaching at others but by the force of example. I could not agree more.
The older American tradition as represented by Adams of protecting the homeland and standing forth as an example to the world of the justness and harmony of the American system will do more good for democracy and peace than all the bullets and embargoes. This is a slow, non-glorious route. And yes, there will be times when evil must be resisted by force, but sobriety is in order and our trigger-happy tendencies should give us pause when, yet again, we feel the itch to reach for the hammer to fix yet another non-nail problem.