That morning, I’d just finished a run along the Potomac past the Pentagon. I was in Army ROTC freshman year at Georgetown University. September 11th, 2021, clearly marks a significant anniversary because of the arbitrary duration of two decades. Yet, this year is different: the same Taliban that hosted Al-Qaeda before 9-11 is now victorious in Afghanistan after the longest and costliest war in US history. There is much to remember and much we’d like to forget. Yet sometimes, remembering must be a conscious choice.
Every 9-11 for the past 20 years, I weep when I remember the smoke coming from the Pentagon with the sound of fighter jets and helicopters swirling above. I remember the live footage of the towers falling that morning while standing across a crowded room from a young woman who had a loved one inside one of them. I never saw her again, but I will always wonder if her relative survived. I will never forget her face. I will also remember an interfaith prayer service an hour or so later. I was in uniform, and I remember opening my eyes during prayer to see my hands tremble in anger. I will always remember that day and the 2,977 civilians who died.
I also recall how things changed immediately after 9-11. The ROTC upperclassmen and the Army instructors began talking about “going to war.” As we held deactivated M16s and wore camouflage fatigues, the tone and intensity of the weekly role-playing scenarios in a nearby park became more dark and serious. I suddenly began hearing dehumanizing language towards foreigners. One course instructor led a close combat drill where he told the assembled cadets what to do when encountering an unconscious enemy combatant. He instructed us cadets to “kick the guy in the nuts as hard as you can to see if he’s still alive. If he moves, double tap him in the head.” No one spoke up. I didn’t.
Double tap means to shoot the incapacitated enemy combatant twice. To be clear, this was only a drill. Yet, a veteran of past failed wars was instructing officers of future failed wars to commit a war crime, a summary execution that would be at odds with the Geneva convention and the “rules based international order” for which we claim to fight. Weeks later I was injured running with the Army Ten Miler Team. I was kicked out of the program.
Every 9-11, I imagine what life would have been like without that injury and how I would have acted in the field of combat. Every 9-11, I feel such mixed feelings: I deeply regret not serving. Yet, on 9-12, I will always remember what has happened since.
While I couldn’t serve because of my injury, as a citizen and taxpayer in this democracy, I still do have blood on my hands. Every 9-12, I remember the 244,000 civilians who died in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan alone. Even the right-leaning Cato Institute calls this number an underestimation. This also doesn’t include the destabilization and destruction we directly caused in many other countries, especially Syria, Libya, and Yemen. In all theaters of this endless and sprawling war, a conservative estimate brings the total civilian death count to 335,000 innocent men, women, and children. The true civilian cost of the amorphous “War on Terror” is much higher. While most Americans suffered the mild inconvenience of increased TSA checkpoint scrutiny as a result of 9-11, our military interventions abroad have caused the displacement of 38 million civilians. This forced movement of civilians is larger than that of all wars since 1900 with the exception of World War 2. Was it worth it? What was gained?
Every 9-12, I remember how that the well-meaning “never forget” sentiment I hear incessantly the day before does a lot of forgetting. At some point in last 20 years, “never forget” became synonymous with collective amnesia and indifference. Not caring about all subsequent civilian deaths is a disservice to the 2,977 civilian victims in our country whose memory was cynically invoked as a causus belli for America’s longest, costliest, and most counterproductive war.
In fact, “never forget” seems to forget the fact that most of the families of the 9-11 victims couldn’t rely on their own government and took matters into their own hands: today 2,000 of these families are still in court to expose our “ally” Saudi Arabia’s involvement in 9-11. “Never forget” really means a gradual forgetting of our values, our Constitution, and our civil liberties at home. Abroad, “never forget” hides a slow forgetting of the universal morality to which we once aspired as a country. Our high water mark was in 1945 when we helped establish the “rules based international order,” which we’ve abandoned over the decades in favor of the solipsism of that befalls all empires. The towers were not the only thing to fall on 9-11.
Some might ask, how can you connect the loss of civilian life at home to the loss of civilian life abroad? How can I not? How can I not see the intrinsic worth of all civilian life beyond arbitrary political, racial, cultural, or geographic boundaries? Furthermore, if I am really a follower of Christ, aren’t I supposed to extend empathy beyond my biology and nationality? Isn’t that the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan?
I can connect state abuses abroad and state abuses at home because of the least common denominator of racism. We wildly devalue and even ignore the body count from state violence at home and abroad because we see these victims as less-than-human. That very discounting or downplaying of another’s humanity is the very core of racism.
Our indifference to civilian deaths caused by the US abroad is directly tied to the same racism that emboldens police to indiscriminately shoot minorities at a higher rate. For me it is impossible to just mourn the tragedy of 1,000 or so yearly victims of state violence here while not also mourning the 16,750 civilians who have died every year, year after year, for the past 20 years because of the very same state’s violence abroad. It’s connected. Does morality stop at the water’s edge or some arbitrary boarder? What sort of morality would that be?
On 9-12, I remember my utter surprise at how dozens of even my “liberal” friends – many who have Black Lives Matters signs on their suburban front yards – have directly dismissed my concern about the dead civilians abroad and my insistence upon their full humanity.
“Those civilian casualties are different,” one allegedly “woke” white friend said. “They were not our citizens,” he insisted.
How is a dark skinned victim of state violence at home any different than a dark skinned victim of state violence abroad? Do foreign families weep for their loss any less than American families? Isn’t it the same racism that has led to indifference of the state’s violence at home and the same state’s violence abroad? Both our empire abroad and police abuses at home have direct antecedents in the concept of settler colonialism, marked by slavery of Africans and genocide of native peoples (both of which required the prerequisite of racism to allow perpetrators see the victims as “less than human”).
How – for example – is the Haditha massacre (where Marines killed 24 unarmed innocent civilians in cold blood) any less evil than similar state violence at home? It’s the same shoot-first/questions-later approach. It’s the same dehumanization process that precedes most acts of human violence. Does it matter what passport an innocent civilian holds?
On 9-12, I remember that we have responded to the very real trauma of 9-11 with the civilian equivalent of nearly six 9-11’s per year, every year, for the past 20 years. Why do so many ration their tears, mourning only 0.8% of the total civilian casualties because of the arbitrary fact they held American citizenship? And given how an average of 15,750 more dark-skinned civilians have died each year for the past 20 years abroad than die from state violence at home, why do many on the left resist adding a robust anti-war and anti-imperial element to a broader anti-racist coalition, just as MLK Jr. called for in his almost universally condemned “Beyond Vietnam” speech? Perhaps the centrist war hawk Democrat is the modern equivalent of MLK Jr.’s “white moderate?”
King made a moral and financial link between the misdeeds of empire abroad and their intimate connection to the misdeeds of empire at home. He knew that dollars diverted abroad are directly related to the same as dollars denied at home. MLK Jr. saw the internal moral rot that befalls all empires. He was literate in what Jesus preached, that to be a follower of Christ means you no longer have an “other” in your politics and morality.
He knew that love and empathy ought not stop at the parochial and arbitrary boundary of a tribe, a race, or a nation state. The Jesus who informed King’s politics was clear about extending empathy towards those outside of his tribe and re-humanizing those who have been deemed to be “less than” human. Just as the FBI hounded and harassed MLK Jr. before his death, Jesus was of course also targeted by the empire of his day for his radical message that inverted the script of the normal human tendency towards intertribal barbarism. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they need all the help they can get.
On 9-12, after I mourn both our 2,977 victims and the at least 100 times more civilians who died abroad than died here on 9-11, I remember the $5.4 to $6.4 trillion spent on the longest, costliest, and most counterproductive war in American history. (This could pay for the spending of even the most radical left-wing domestic proposals out there today, yet both Republicans and centrist Democrats call for brutal austerity.)
Isn’t there a moral difference between the deficits spent abroad in military defeats and the ongoing cost of 800 plus military bases worldwide compared to deficits that could be spent investing in people, their infrastructure, their healthcare, and their education? If a nation’s budget is a moral document, our moral priorities are laid bare.
Trillions are spent abroad in an endless succession of military defeats while our bridges collapse, tent cities of homeless swell, and 17 million children suffer food insecurity. While 40% of US aid to Afghanistan is now in the hands of criminals, warlords, drug lords, and insurgents, our government bails out banks, defense contractors, and “corporate citizens” first.
In the words of King, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” I would only argue that “defense” might not be an accurate way to describe what happened in the ensuing two decades.
On 9-12, I remember the strategic incompetence of the “experts” of our bipartisan foreign policy establishment who rotate through the revolving door between the Pentagon, industry-funded “think tanks,” defense contractors, and oil and gas corporations. This conflict was designed – legally and strategically – to combat terrorism (an ancient tactic that will always exist as long as nation states do) instead of any one state actor. It was meant from day one to have its center nowhere and circumference everywhere, an embodiment the same Military Industrial Complex nightmare feared by President Dwight Eisenhower. After an awkward soul-searching decade of America not having an external enemy after the unanticipated implosion of the USSR, 9-11 gave the “defense” establishment exactly what was needed: justification for permanent war mobilization. The War on Terror metastasized into a War of Terror.
Every 9-12, I remember the lies from the Pentagon of multiple administrations who knew from as early as the second half of the Bush administration that the war was not winnable. I remember Obama’s continuation of this delusion, the surge, and his drastic escalation of drone warfare based on legal gray zones, the same sort of creative legal carve outs created during the Bush administration. I remember the distraction and destruction that was the second Iraq war, and the directly-related destabilization of regimes like Syria.
I remember Fallujah, white phosphorus being used around civilians, and Abu Ghraib. And, I will especially remember that nearly 20 years ago, just months after 9-11, the Taliban tried to broker a deal with the Bush administration to hand over Osama bin Laden, an offer which was quickly rejected outright. As I write this the Taliban has rejected an attempt by the US to give the civilian evacuation effort more time. While that is tragic, I can’t ignore the tragedy that the best time to negotiate with the Taliban – when we had all the cards after bombing started – was in 2001. Such negotiation was attempted but rejected by the US. Any student of history should not be surprised that every empire is susceptible to the fatal flaw of hubris.
The founders and framers based their cautious optimism for our Republic on the assumption of highly educated public. That is nearly impossible when our corporate media has been distracting and entertaining us instead of informing us. (No, liberals, while Fox is egregious, it’s not just Fox). Your favorite columnist and TV show personality has been feeding you the Pentagon’s propaganda instead of speaking truth to power. If history is any guide, in a decade or so another crisis will be used as a justification to maintain and expand the budget of a military that already outspends the next ten countries combined yet still can’t manage to decisively end a conflict on favorable terms since 1945. The very amnesia behind “never forget” will make the repetition of history inevitable.
Big flags cast big shadows. We must have the moral imagination to illuminate these shadows. In the last 20 yeas we have become much more similar to the Roman Empire described in the gospels than we are to the radical moral vision of Jesus, whose ministry had everything to do with the social injustice caused by Rome and it’s collusion with the religious establishment of his day. At ballgames and commemorative events many politicians parrot the platitude that we are “one nation under God,” without stopping to wonder which God? The one who commanded us to love the other before he was executed by the empire of his day? Or Mars, the Roman god of war and empire? Or Baal? Or mammon? Or power? Or the U.S. flag? Or Trump? Why are those who like to call us a “Christian nation” the very same people who are so very un-Christ like in their politics and morality?
If we only see the victims on our side of an arbitrary tribal, geographic, or political boundary, our morality is closer to the Neanderthals than a species who may have prematurely named itself Homo sapiens sapiens, or wise wise human. There is no “other” in the politics of someone who really follows what Jesus preached. We must re-humanize the dehumanized “other.” We must tear the veil that surrounds the tribe and practice empathy where it is difficult to do so. We must question and confront the inherited human impulses towards parochial tribalism, narrow self interest, and intertribal brutalism.
Jesus was tortured and executed by the empire of his day for this very message. This irony seems to be especially lost on mainstream Christians in this country who – of all things – overwhelmingly support the use of state torture. They were joined by the “New Atheists” who also helped sell the war and its related human rights atrocities. Should we at all be surprised when the injustices abroad are mirrored at home? It’s the same racism, it’s the same state, it’s the same tax dollars, it’s the same myopic morality, it’s the same voters, it’s the same apathy and indifference, so where is the same outrage? Racially-motivated state violence towards innocent civilian life must be called out no matter where it happens.
I have more than enough tears to shed for civilian victims on both sides of arbitrary imaginary lines. This 9-11, let us shed a tear for our own victims. On 9-12, let us also mourn those whom we have victimized in the past 20 year quagmire. On 9-12, let us remember our amnesia. I hope you will join me in a boundless morality that doesn’t stop at the ocean’s shore. A morality that illuminates the shadows cast by big flags. A morality overflowing with empathy. A morality that emulates Christ instead of many emulating the “Christians” who often seem so Christ-illiterate. A morality that doesn’t ration its tears domestically or close its eyes abroad.
This is the higher path to which Jesus pointed, a morality that isn’t afraid of crossing imaginary lines on maps or in our hearts.