Two years ago, General Stan McChrystal – then Commander in Afghanistan – addressed his troops in Kandahar, “I’ll bet everyone here remembers what they were doing on 9/11.” Incautiously, he turned to the nearest soldier and asked him whether he recalled what he was doing that day. The soldier eagerly replied, “Yes Sir. I was having the braces removed from my teeth.”
A new generation
Today, we have armed forces full of kids who were wearing braces on 9/11. They’re the shock troops of the “war on terror”. They’ve all seen the video of the twin towers coming down and the burning wreckage of the Pentagon and United 97, but they didn’t live that experience. They were children then; now they’re soldiers – “volunteers” from towns where jobs are scarce and the military looks like a better option than flipping burgers. These soldiers are being asked now to fight and die in that “war on terror” and we have a hard time explaining why. Why 9/11 happened…why the “war on terror” seems it will never end…Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen. So much terror to war against.
September 11, 2001: I recall a photograph of a man dressed in a business suit falling through the air from high in one of the twin towers. He had chosen to die that way, rather than wait for the flames. Two hours earlier, his biggest decision had been which colour tie to wear.
After that day of horror, I returned home and asked my wife, “What do they want from us.” She replied, “They want us to know they exist.” That most horrific day woke us all to the reality that there are people out there who ‘exist’ and whose hatred for us is unbounded; who have grievances.
9/11 didn’t just happen. It didn’t begin in 2001. It forces us to consider what we did that made ‘them’ so angry, and to look forward and ask what, if anything, we might do to make things better.
So why are ‘they’ so angry at us? Perhaps it began when Iran’s elected government was replaced with the Shah (1953), when Afghan warlords and the likes of Osama bin Laden were armed and supported against the USSR (1979-89), when western governments supported Egypt’s Mubarak (1981-2011), when foreign troops were based in Saudi Arabia (1990-2003), or when the West lifted sanctions against a ‘rehabilitated’ Qadaffi (2006-2011).
The genesis of anger
Perhaps ‘they’ hate the fact that over 230,000 foreign troops are stationed today at bases across the Muslim world; that western nations have done little about the abuses of the King of Bahrain or the Assad regime because we need a home base for the US 5th fleet; that we talk of an ‘enduring partnership’ with a corrupt Afghan elite; that a lunatic cleric in the USA burns copies of the Holy Quran; that slurs against Muslims spew from the lips of high officials…such signals cause them to believe the worst of us.
To many Muslims, we don’t seem to stand for the things that make us great: democracy, respect for human dignity, fairness. Much has been cast aside in the name of this ‘war on terror’. As Bobby Kennedy said during his 1966 tour of South Africa, we must stand for something – it’s not enough to stand against that which we fear.
But we must not blame ourselves for 9/11. The blame rests squarely with a tiny Muslim minority. Violent, extremist Mullahs have taken over in some parts of the Muslim world. Western Pakistan is loaded with them. Yemen and Somalia have more than their fair share. They gain traction wherever lack of opportunity and a visible foreign military presence intersect with a disdain for our standards of morality and human rights.
They question our goals in their countries; in their homes. They believe that we want to steal their land and their women, and that we dishonour their religion. A small but determined group among them has set their sights on violently lashing out against our society: 9/11, Madrid, London, the near-miss on that airliner bound for Detroit. They hope to sap our strength through endless wars of attrition. Bin Laden had that dream. The voices countering these extremists are few and live in fear for their lives. Clearly, the ‘war on terror’ has only just begun.
We must begin to ask what we can do to prove to the believers in Islam that we can co-exist – that we now know that they ‘exist’. We can’t solve the problems of all the Muslim world’s poor and frustrated. But we can begin to remove our troops from places where they’re not wanted – Afghanistan, first and foremost. We can also reduce our dependence on resources that tie us to despots, reassess our friendship with nations whose policies we should abhor and demand that our leaders look beyond drone attacks and military surges for ways to engage with a generation of young Muslims who are waiting to see whether we are who we say we are. That’s the challenge of 9/11. We owe it to the victims that day, and since.