5 years later, still a voice crying in the wilderness

By Robert Jensen

Published in Houston Chronicle, September 14, 2006 · September, 2006

We all remember where we were and what we felt on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I also have a clear recollection of the morning of Sept. 14, 2001.

I got to my office early, and the red message light on my phone was already blinking. My voice-mailbox was full of angry condemnations of an essay that had run in the Houston Chronicle that morning (“U.S. just as guilty of committing own violent acts,” Outlook), in which I sharply criticized past U.S. policy and warned that a vengeful response to the terrorist attacks would be disastrous.

I wasn’t surprised that most of the messages were hostile, though I couldn’t have predicted the intensity — or the volume. I put the phone down and saw the light blinking again; while I had been listening to the first round, others were calling to leave more messages. And so it went throughout the day, and for weeks to come, as people lashed out at those of us who rejected the cry for war.

Five years later, I’m still standing — and still teaching at the University of Texas, despite the desire many of those callers expressed to see my employment terminated — with no damage to body or soul.

If only we could say that about the world.

So, on this anniversary week it’s important to mark not one, but two great tragedies. The first, of course, is the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people. Memorial services around the country this week marked our common sense of loss.

Unfortunately, there won’t be official memorial services for the second tragedy that followed — the commencement of the so-called “war on terror.” That misguided policy has taken far more innocent lives — now into the hundreds of thousands, in Afghanistan and Iraq — without making the U.S. public any safer. But there’s an even deeper tragedy — not in what has happened because of this illegal and immoral policy, but in what didn’t happen.

Sept. 11 offered a dramatic moment in which the most powerful country on the planet could have led the world on a new course. U.S. leaders had a choice to either (1) manipulate people’s legitimate fears and understandable desire for vengeance to justify wars of control and domination, or (2) help create a world in desperate need of more justice, not more war.

To choose the latter would have taken visionary leadership; a role for which, sadly, virtually no one in the Republican or Democratic parties appeared qualified, then or now. But there were such voices — not leaders but ordinary people, speaking out clearly and early. For example, those who lost family but resisted the call for war formed “September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows” and campaigned for alternatives to war.

Antiwar activists immediately began developing the argument that war would exacerbate the terrorist threat and that a two-track solution — radically changing the unjust U.S. policies in the Middle East that provide fertile ground for terrorists to recruit, while pursuing vigorous law-enforcement efforts to track and capture terrorists — would be not only moral and legal, but also effective. War, we predicted, would not solve our problems.

Five years later, one thing is clear: The antiwar voices were right. We saw what was coming, not because we were so smart but because it was so obvious.

Since the end of World War II, U.S. policy in the Middle East and Central Asia has been designed to ensure U.S. control over the strategically crucial energy resources of that region. Democratic and Republican administrations alike have used violence — in covert operations and open warfare, conducted by the United States and its surrogates — to dominate the region’s politics. Talk of noble U.S. plans to build democracy are contradicted by actions on the ground. Around the world people understand that this quest to control the flow of oil and oil profits is at the heart of U.S. policy; only in this country are people seduced by politicians’ fanciful rhetoric about freedom.

That’s why it’s a “so-called” war on terror. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq used terrorism as a cover. Now even mainstream commentators, who may not share my political analysis, are acknowledging these wars haven’t reduced the threat.

Two top national-security reporters, Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay, surveyed the opinions of counterterrorism experts and former government officials and concluded: “In relying overwhelmingly on bombs and bullets, [analysts] say, the United States has alienated much of the Muslim world, driving away even moderates who might be open to Western ideas.”

Political scientist Robert Pape, the leading researcher on suicide terrorism, concluded that al-Qaida’s strength — measured as “the ability of the group to kill us” — is greater today than before 9/11 and that “suicide terrorism results more from foreign occupation than Islamic fundamentalism.”

The opportunity right after 9/11 to chart a new course — one that could have led to a stable peace rooted in a more just distribution of wealth and power worldwide — was lost. But that does not mean we are forever condemned to repeat our mistakes.

I ended that 9/14 essay with a plea “that the insanity stop here.” Five years later there is nothing to do but renew the plea:

It is time to end not just this current war in Iraq, but this insanity — here and now, while there is still time.