The next crossroads

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, it is well to remember that the road we took over the past decade was not inevitable.

I recall an email that John Paul Lederach circulated just days after the Twin Towers fell. Based on his decades of the study and practice of international conflict transformation, Lederach (currently a professor of international peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame who also teaches at Eastern Mennonite University) counseled us not to seek accountability through war but by thinking and acting differently than expected.

As he wrote at the time:

To face the reality of a well organized, decentralized, self-perpetuating source of terror, we need to think differently about the challenges. The key does not lie in finding and destroying territories, camps, and certainly not the civilian populations that supposedly house them. Paradoxically that will only feed the phenomenon and assure that it lives into a new generation.

Instead, he advised a peacebuilding approach that emphasized regional development, resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and getting at the root causes. “The single greatest pressure that could ever be put on Bin Laden,” he wrote, “is to remove the source of his justifications and alliances.”

Change up the script of retaliation and military dominance, Lederach advised five days after the attack, and we’ll have a better chance of creating both justice and peace.

The 9/11 anniversary provides an opportunity to assess the road we actually took: a decade of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and beyond; the unimaginable suffering experienced by many in the region and in the US, including the soldiers sent to fight this protracted conflict; and the monumental financial cost of ten years of modern warfare, which has likely played a central role in the severe economic crisis facing the US and the world today.

But even more damaging has been the new infrastructure of US “war-building.”

We not only possess the legacy of human and financial ruin in the US and throughout the Middle East, we now live in a world where the institutions, strategies, networks and structures of permanent war have multiplied over the past decade. The US geo-politico-military posture has been a powerful global presence since World War II. However, its ability to make sustained war has increased dramatically in the post-9/11 world.

Some of this has been relentlessly visible, but there is an enormous dimension of this new militarism that has been largely shadowy, secret, and invisible. Three recent newspaper articles highlight this growing and often behind-the-scenes infrastructure.

On September 1, the Washington Post published “CIA shifts focus to killing targets.” This report documents the dramatic growth in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and its drones program that has killed 2,000 people since 2001, with about 20% of CIA analysts working as “‘targeters’ scanning data for individuals to recruit, arrest or place in the cross­hairs of a drone.” The story quotes an anonymous former official who characterized the new CIA this way:

“You’ve taken an agency that was chugging along and turned it into one hell of a killing machine”… Blanching at his choice of words, he quickly offered a revision: “Instead, say ‘one hell of an operational tool.’”

Even more revealing is a Washington Post story published on September 4 titled “‘Top Secret America’: A Look at The Military’s Joint Special Operations Command.”

This story is an excerpt from a chapter in a book resulting from a nearly two-year project detailing the national security buildup in the US since 9/11, including the fact that 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, intelligence, and homeland security across the United States. This piece highlights the explosive growth of the Military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which has become America’s secret army. Using sophisticated technology and weaponry, JSOC has conducted thousands of shadowy raids in Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in over 1,400 deaths. It is busy creating new “targeting packages” for other places. Mexico, according to the story, is at the top of its wish list.

JSOC has incorporated US Special Forces, including the Navy SEALS. Here’s how one anonymous Navy SEAL is quoted as describing his outfit: “‘We’re the dark matter. We’re the force that orders the universe but can’t be seen.’” (Click here to see a detailed, interactive graphic offering a detailed overview of “Top Secret America”)

A third recent story offers a glimpse into how this national security script is seeping into the weave of life here at home. On August 31, the Los Angeles Times published “9/11 spawned big changes on campus,” which details the impact homeland security funding is having on universities across the US. The article is upbeat about the “growth industry” of national security studies on campus and how this trend is yielding innovation and employment opportunities. Aided by federal funding, courses, institutes, certificate programs, even whole departments are being contemplated. One university is looking to the future by offering a “homeland security summer camp for middle school and high school students.”

These three reports only offer a glimpse of the emerging infrastructure of the post-9/11 world. There is much more to learn about the growing proliferation of surveillance, targeting, counterterrorism at home and abroad, space war, and many other tools of military, economic and political threat and counter-threat.

The mechanics of domination will continue to grow and widen unless we take steps to challenge and transform it. While this process of change will include learning about this “dominance growth industry,” more importantly it means building an infrastructure fostering peacebuilding and a fundamentally different orientation to life on the planet. Just as the largely unarmed Arab Spring has demonstrated the ability of nonviolent power to trump expensive and technologized military forces and strategies, so people everywhere are being invited at this key turning point to take another road.

September 11, 2001 presented us with a crossroads. As we pause this week to mark 9/11, we realize that we are at a new crossroads. We can continue down the well-grooved path of the past decade, or we make a turn and accept John Paul Lederach’s unfulfilled challenges from a decade ago: to do the unexpected and to build an infrastructure of peace that, unlike the path of the past ten years, is transparent and sustaining.

The choice for a new path, while not easy or simple, is ours.

Again.

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