20 years ago, the world paused, temporarily upending the consciousness of an advancing global population in a brand-new millennium. Sept. 11 evokes feelings of heartbreak and horror throughout the world. Even a mere five seconds of footage after the planes’ impact conjures some of the worst imaginable human experiences: the live onlookers and news viewers see two of the world’s tallest buildings burn and collapse, with a deeper understanding that even within just a brief moment of peering at the television screen or the scene itself, lives were permanently lost and families were left fragmented.
In one morning, 2,996 people died (CNN, “September 11 Terror Attacks Fast Facts,” 09.03.2021). For victims and their families, the attack illuminated the realities of loss, grief and the terrifying fragility of life. With every overwhelming tragedy, however, as with all major events, far-reaching historical consequences surpassing the individual level take root. Islamophobia metastisized across the United States; the swift passage of the Patriot Act unleashed a period of intrusive surveillance and especially targeted Muslim, South Asian and Arab Americans; and a global––but uniquely American––state of fear and desire for vengeance materialized into the prelude to war (Pew Research, “Two Decades Later, the Enduring Legacy of 9/11,” 09.02.2021).
The terror that unfolded on Sept. 11 revved up the military-industrial complex, made possible by enormous investments and put into action by the apprehensions of an American populace (Miscellany News, “Why you should care about the Military-Industrial-Media Complex,” 04.15.2021). A wave of passionate American jingoism and feelings of American exceptionalism and perseverance were exacerbated by fear, making military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan attractive in not just defeating terrorists, but also propping up ideologically friendly nations. New developments such as the Patriot Act’s most abusive provisions and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq became policy decisions that, rather than being the product of pragmatic input and study, were motivated by circumstantial, emotional tendencies (Congress.gov, “USA Patriot Act,” 10.26.2001). Vengeance, passion, anger and simultaneous feelings of vulnerability and exceptionalism drove the United States to war. The emotions were valid, but the resolve that sprouted from them was misdirected in the long term to a devastating extent.
Valuable lessons remain in light of the 20-year anniversary of Sept. 11 and its somber accompaniment: the Taliban’s return to Afghan governance. The political body of the United States must learn from history and approach even the worst of situations with more pragmatism and contextual knowledge, resisting the blinding effects of a trauma-induced groupthink that could motivate the wrong actions. Twenty years late is still better than never.
Learn from history . The intervention in Afghanistan brought up images, particularly that of the U.S. Chinook helicopter flying off the Kabul embassy’s roof, that served as ominous reminders of Saigon (The Washington Post, “It’s too simple to compare the photos of Kabul to those from Saigon. The real connections are deeper,” 08.16.2021). 20 years after Al-Qaeda’s evil movement incited the call for a war on terror, an opportunity presents itself. The need to learn from past foreign policy mistakes and to understand that unless a threat to the entire world exists and options have run out, we must prioritize diplomatic solutions. Furthermore, the idea that we can instill democracy over a very different societal order by having foreigners—in this case American troops—occupy a country is illusory.
Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) was the only vote in the entire House of Representatives against the joint resolution for the Authorization of Use of Military Force three days after the Sept. 11 attacks (Congress.gov, “Public Law 107–40,” 09.18.2001). She was deemed a traitor at the time, when America was in the throes of trauma and disbelief, but the other 420 representatives and 98 senators who voted in favor of the resolution either lacked her foresight or collapsed under the pressure (The Atlantic, “Angry Members to the One Member of Congress Who Voted Against the War on Terror,” 09.14.2014). Last Friday night, Lee appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and reasserted, “Whenever we are grieving, whenever we’re in mourning, whenever we’re sad, whenever we’re angry, that is not the time to make important decisions,” (Real Time with Bill Maher, “Rep. Barbara Lee: The Lessons of 9/11,” 09.10.2021). If we followed her logic at the time, maybe American civil liberties, the lives of American soldiers and the lives of people in Afghanistan and Iraq would be more secure.
Rep. Lee’s vote is very different from the lone vote against war with the Japanese Empire in 1941, Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) (HISTORY, “Jeannette Rankin casts sole vote against WWII,” 12.07.2020). An imperial force threatening the entire Pacific perpetrated the attack on Pearl Harbor in a direct alliance with Nazi Germany, which threatened all of Europe at the very least. Military intervention was a necessity at that time, but that is exactly the point: context matters. Efforts of counterterrorism, heightened intelligence capabilities and national security were paramount for the world’s safety from the same terror that struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. But Al-Qaeda never posed threats nearly as great as what justified the wars of the past, which threatened entire continents and the world order. Today’s state of affairs between America and Afghanistan mark an opportunity to take into account both the power and limits of this liberal interventionist era.
We should be substantially more pragmatic before approving potentially grave actions . The harboring of Al-Qaeda terrorists by the Taliban may have warranted military action, but the loss of congressional input into matters of war left the executive branch far too powerful in its joint influence with the military. The effort to “nation-build” and create a new democratic society through military involvement was also a destructive gamble. Lives were lost, billions of dollars that could have been spent on tangible improvements to people’s lives were wasted and Islamic terrorists were able to use American intervention as a recruitment tool (Associated Press, “Costs of the Afghanistan war, in lives and dollars,” 08.17.2021). These consequences were not inevitably unforeseen, but rather, post-Sept. 11 impulsive policymaking overwhelmed the healthier prospects of a pragmatism that could have secured a better future.
Foreign policy decisions need context and sufficient review without the toxicity of an aggressive groupthink. A war hawk may want to militarily intervene in the opportunity of even the smallest threats. A pacifist may want to pledge to never support any form of military solution to anything, ever. Future approaches must be taken without the constraints of absolute doctrines or labels, especially when otherwise more rational solutions are clouded by tragedy and panic.
I was an eight-month-old Brooklynite when Al-Qaeda attacked the Twin Towers, and while I cannot remember anything from that day, I still view the Freedom Tower’s grandeur and stoicism with feelings of both amazement and sympathetic attachment. Besides being a place of great tragedy, it is the site where we once suspended our differences and politics and forged a sense of unity, yet also the site where a series of facile American policies began to endanger the United States and the world.