It’s a foregone conclusion that revenge ties itself in a logical knot. It’s a cycle that churns until everyone bound up in it is dead. With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in mind, philosopher Simon Critchley rehearses this fact eloquently in his latest at his New York Times forum, The Stone.
The Sept. 11 attacks, which most of us remember as a series of visual images, repeatedly televised and published, originate with an earlier series of images. For Bin Laden, there was a strange kind of visual justice in 9/11, the retributive paying back of an image for an image, an eye for an eye. … The wheel of violence and counterviolence spins without end and leads inevitably to destruction.
Now, in no small sense, after 10 years of wars on terror waged against phantoms in ourselves and mainly innocents abroad, the United States’ eye for an eye has made the whole world blind—as Gandhi predicted. Fair enough. I think we knew that already, whether or not one is willing to admit it.
But then Critchley offers a more hopeful proposition.
Ask yourself: what if nothing had happened after 9/11? No revenge, no retribution, no failed surgical strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, no poorly planned bloody fiasco in Iraq, no surges and no insurgencies to surge against; nothing.
What if the government had simply decided to turn the other cheek and forgive those who sought to attack it, not seven times, but seventy times seven? What if the grief and mourning that followed 9/11 were allowed to foster a nonviolent ethics of compassion rather than a violent politics of revenge and retribution? What if the crime of the Sept. 11 attacks had led not to an unending war on terror, but the cultivation of a practice of peace—a difficult, fraught and ever-compromised endeavor, but perhaps worth the attempt?
I’m tempted to convene an art show, or call for an essay contest, or declare a hashtag. It’s a good exercise. A great exercise. On September 12, as Americans rallied around their leaders, only one response was made to seem possible or even conceivable: attack. Revenge. But that was a failure of imagination, the result of years and decades and centuries of practice with failed imaginations, which took bellicosity as the only response to tragedy. It’s not, though, and if we’re going to act differently next time, we’d better start practicing now.
So, what do you think the last ten years could have been like?
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Similarly, Michael Lind wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post on how things might have gone down these last ten years had 9/11 not occurred at all – http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-world-without-911-no-president-obama-more-china-trouble-same-debt-crisis/2011/08/29/gIQA8VkuCK_story.html. Let me know if you have the essay contest or hashtag. It’s an excellent thought-exercise.
Why not get it started here in the comments?
Military spending, obviously, is one thing. There would have been a lot less of it. Just watch how this chart of military expenditure as a percentage of the GDP is dipping, dipping, and dipping as the US starts heading in the right direction after the end of the Cold War. The way we responded to 9/11 brought it right back up.
Just imagine what those resources might otherwise have been spent on, or how they might have changed the big national conversations of the past decade: education, health care, debt, social security.
If the author of this post is implying that the primary impetus of Americans in reacting to 9/11 was no different from that of the U.S. government and that it amounted to some form of national “revenge”, he is unfairly pronouncing moral judgment on his fellow citizens. Tens of millions of Americans did not approve of many of the Bush Administration’s actions performed in the name of fighting terrorism, and many of us opposed them. There is no such thing as collective guilt when we have international as well as national institutions of justice predicated on the concept of individual responsibility. The German people were not held responsible for the actions of their government in World War II; specific individuals were indicted, tried and convicted at the Nuremberg Trials.
Moreover, it is also factually wrong to notice no difference between (1) the military action in Afghanistan in 2001, which had the purpose of dismantling the infrastructure for Al Qaeda terrorist training in that country, and pursuing and capturing its leaders who repeatedly claimed credit for having perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, and (2) the later invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was immediately opposed by many in the Congress as well what arguably became a majority of Americans, as not being related to 9/11. As for the original military action in Afghanistan in 2001, it is legitimate to argue that it was an act of preventative self-defense against further attacks. No international authorities or bodies objected to that military action as a matter of law, and indeed the governments of most democratic nations acknowledged it as justified, and several participated militarily.
Assessing responsibility for the terrorism and excesses in counter-terrorism of the past decade cannot be done without recalling its historical context: Al Qaeda attacks in numerous locations around the world, including Africa and Europe in the previous and following decade, killed tens of thousands of people of numerous nationalities. The eventual apprehension of Osama bin Laden, whose organization claimed credit for these attacks as well as 9/11, was therefore widely regarded by people of many different political views in many nations as the justifiable action of catching a fugitive who had boasted of notorious crimes.
Unfortunately the international community has yet to create international law enforcement units which could have accomplished that pursuit. But in that context, to suggest that the U.S. should have done nothing by itself in response to the 9/11 attacks is to infer that any nation should hold itself defenseless against non-state actors using terrorism to kill that nation’s citizens. No citizenry under similar threat anywhere in the world would tolerate such inaction by their government. To suggest otherwise is to give up realism in order to cope with reality.
To reiterate: The purpose of the original military action in Afghanistan was distinguishable from the subsequent use of the threat of terrorism as a reason by the Bush Administration to conduct unwarranted military action for other purposes, to use torture on detainees in Guantanamo, and to abuse civil liberties and commit other excesses in the name of national security. These practices were indeed “made to seem conceivable” by certain leaders like Vice President Cheney, who tried to deceive Americans into thinking they were suitable responses to the threat of terrorism. But not everyone was so deceived; many of those who weren’t fought these practices every step of the way.
Without disaggregating who in government did what and when, and for what reasons, from the remainder of officials and from Americans who opposed such actions, it is unjust to imply that America is morally responsible for “10 years of wars on terror waged against phantoms in ourselves and mainly innocents abroad.” It is also insensitive to imply that terrorism by Al Qaeda was a “phantom” in the minds of Americans when many people in Nairobi, New York, Madrid, London and other places were its victims.
The killing of innocents is never justified, and that is why all those who facilitated and carried out the attacks of 9/11, and why specific individuals within the U.S. government who ordered or falsified the justification for bombing and invading Iraq (which killed over 100,000 civilians ), should be held responsible for the effects of what they did. But what those individuals did does not make “the whole world blind.” Overreacting to the overreactions to 9/11 will not help us correct them in the future.
For a more balanced and sober appraisal of Americans’ response to the events of 9/11, I recommend Joe Nocera’s column in The New York Times yesterday: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/nocera-on-911-the-view-from-the-train.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=joe%20nocera&st=cse