9/11’s self-inflicted wounds are the worst

Treating the perpetrators of 9/11 as criminals, not warriors, could have radically altered the the last decade.

British troops Afghanistan
According to a Gallup poll, just 54 per cent of Americans favoured military action in response to 9/11 [GALLO/GETTY]

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks a decade ago, the American people responded with shock, grief and disbelief. Within about a month, US planes were bombing Afghanistan, with only one ally – Britain – flying beside them. A much broader coalition of countries expressed support, but did not participate in dropping bombs. According to polls at the time, 95 per cent of Americans approved.

Yet a much earlier poll had shown considerably less unanimity for this response. Conducted by the Gallup organisation, it found that only 54 per cent of Americans favoured military retaliation, compared to 30 per cent who favoured a criminal justice response – extraditing the terrorists responsible and putting them on trial. The remaining 16 per cent were undecided.

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Given the fact that the criminal justice option had almost no media exposure, it seems quite likely that many more Americans would have supported it if they heard it explained and defended by credible authorities. Instead, the opposite happened – talk of a military response became increasingly dominant. A count conducted by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that op-eds in the New York Times and the Washington Post ran 44-2 in favour of war during the first three weeks after September 11.

Yet that 30 per cent figure was part of an overwhelming worldwide consensus. The Gallup poll was replicated in 34 other countries around the world. The military response was favoured in only two – Israel and India – both of which had decades-long experience with terrorists from Muslim nations, and both of which had unsuccessfully launched military response themselves, with disastrous results that mired them in decades of fruitless violence. It was hardly surprising  that within a matter of months both these nations were embroiled in further conflicts which, ironically, threatened to derail our own cherished “war on terrorism”.  Everywhere else, landslide majorities favoured a non-military response, ranging  from 67 per cent to 88 per cent among NATO/Western European nations, from 64 per cent to 83 per cent among Eastern European nations, and from 83 per cent to 94 per cent in Latin America.

Thus, aside from the US, Israel and India, the overwhelming majority of people around the world favoured treating this terrorist act as the crime it was, rather than the act of war the terrorists wanted it to be. In Pakistan, tellingly, 69 per cent supported extradition and trial, while only 9 per cent supported military action. Was it any wonder, then, that Pakistan has proven so problematic for the US over the past decade? What did we expect?

In short, it’s indisputable that Al Qaeda wanted war with America. So why did we give it to them? They did not want to be seen as criminal pariahs, universally despised by all of humanity. So why didn’t we treat them that way? Whenever there is suffering or injustice in the world, there is an opportunity for scoundrels to exploit it. By responding to bin Laden militarily, Bush did what bin Laden could never do for himself – validated his fantasy of being a holy warrior, rather than a fanatic mass murderer. Thus, we vastly expanded his scoundrel’s capacity to exploit all the suffering and injustice in the   world, regardless of the fact that he himself only added to that sad total.

Why? Why did we elevate bin Laden to the status of “warrior”?

One answer is that we ourselves were too easily trapped in either/or ways of thinking strikingly similar to bin Laden. We too confused justice and retribution, we too believed we knew what was right, regardless of the consequences, we too allowed ourselves to be carried away with our own sense of anguish, grief and betrayal. This didn’t mean that we were no better than him – but the decade that followed has all too often made it seem that way, as our death toll has grown to far overshadow his.

War always holds that danger – that it will turn into an endless cycle in which each side becomes progressively more savage and barbaric, making an utter mockery of the high ideals invoked to go to war in the first place. Our challenge was to avoid becoming monsters ourselves in the process of defending ourselves from monsters. War is what monsters want. It is what feeds them. It makes them whole. It turns their enemies into monsters as well. And all too soon – as the Abu Ghraib photos showed – that is precisely what happened to us.

But we have the option of thinking differently, of seeing the patterns of thought that partly trap us, and learning how to escape from them. This does not mean giving up on seeking and attaining justice. Quite the contrary. By learning to distinguish justice from retribution we vastly increase our chances and our capacity for obtaining justice, and for avoiding future suffering in an endless cycle of retribution.

Escaping cycles of violence

This had happened once before in our history. In Europe seven centuries ago, retribution was virtually synonymous with justice. When one person injured or killed another, justice required a response in kind. Cycles of retaliation created murder rates up to a hundred times that of modern Europe – rates comparable only to the worst of gang-infested neighborhoods at the height of the early 1990s crack wars.

What changed all that was an institutionalised shift in thinking. Instead of seeing crimes of injury and murder as private matters calling out for retribution, they were recast as public matters, crimes against the whole society, calling out for justice. This shift in thinking and the institutions to support it have dramatically increased the personal security of countless millions over the centuries. It isn’t perfect, obviously. It hasn’t completely eliminated murder and mayhem. But it has produced a change so dramatic that it was truly inconceivable beforehand. Crucial to this shift in thinking, institutions and results was a seeming paradox: In order to secure the right to live in peace, people gave up the privilege of taking their own revenge and acting as a law unto themselves.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was a teachable moment: The same was true about the possibility of eliminating war and the patterns of thinking that lead us to war. As with the earlier elimination of private vengeance, it would not be perfect, but it would still be incomparably better than we could possibly imagine. It would not change human nature, nor would it need to. It would not eliminate conflict, nor would it need to. Rather, it would transform the conditions under which we live, and the ways we deal with conflict. It would be a form of growing up, growing out of one stage of development and into another.

Reflecting on the terrifying dawn of the atomic age, which sprang from his own theoretical discoveries, Albert Einstein wrote, “Everything has changed, except for our ways of thinking. And thus we drift toward unimaginable catastrophe.” In the post-9/11 world, Einstein’s words are more true than ever. Job number one is to change our ways of thinking. Doing more of what doesn’t work will not help us. Doing what doesn’t work more efficiently or effectively won’t help us. Minor variations in what doesn’t work won’t help us either. To understand what will help us, we must change our ways of thinking. And to do that, we must gain insight into our ways of thinking, as well as insight into the ways of thinking of others as well.

The road not taken – the justice option

Let’s start with a simple exercise. Imagine if we Americans had not rushed into war against an enemy that hadn’t even attacked us. Imagine if we had not rushed into war at all.

Imagine what could have been instead had we chosen the justice option – treating the terrorists as the criminals they were, instead of the war option, conferring on them the unwarranted dignity of warriors. On September 25, 2001, Mary Robinson, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced that her office had determined “that the events of the 11th of September undoubtedly constituted acts of terrorism, but they also crossed a line” into the realm of “crimes against humanity”.

Robinson continued:

“The significance of that is two-fold, I think. One, it immediately rallies the whole global community. If these are crimes against humanity, every country would owe a duty to work with the United Nations, work with the United States, to bring the perpetrators to justice. Also, it helps in many different ways to indicate that it is not acceptable that that line has been crossed and that the world community working together is going to prevent the kind of widespread scale of terrorism against the civilian population that would amount to a crime against humanity.”

Tellingly, rather than embracing this message, and building on the world-wide obligation work with us, the Bush Administration made it a priority to remove Robinson from office. This was done precisely because she was an independent voice who did not always rubber-stamp US positions – a fact which obviously made her an even more effective ally, if we were at all interested in the path of moral and political persuasion.

But beyond the clear weight of international law on our side – and the obligation Robinson highlighted – there was even more. There was a deep feeling of shame, humiliation, and revulsion in the Muslim world that the terrorist acts had dishonored and disgraced Islam. Such feelings could easily have been mobilised to go far beyond what governments could command – especially those oppressive governments allied with America whose legitimacy many Muslims questioned or denied.

“The events of the 11th of September undoubtedly constituted acts of terrorism, but they also crossed a line [into the realm of] crimes against humanity.”

Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Imagine if we had done the sensible thing – mobilising the worldwide horror at 9/11 to bring the perpetrators to justice and utterly discredit their cause, without harming one single innocent along the way.

Imagine what would have happened if the United States had gone to the United Nations, embraced Robinson, and sought the creation of a special tribunal to investigate and punish those responsible, in collaboration with all the leading religious authorities in Islam. Imagine further if those authorities had issued a fatwah – a religious edict – commanding full cooperation from every Muslim as their religious duty to remove a terrible stain on Islam. Imagine if this fatwah called for every Muslim not just to passively cooperate, but to actively come forward to tell everything they knew that could possibly help in bringing those responsible to justice. 

How could such a response have been resisted? Who could possibly resist the combination of religious duty commanded from within the very heart of Islam and complete, merciful restraint by the injured party, who had almost limitless power to respond with military force and violence? The answer should be clear: only a handful of the most fanatical members of al-Qaeda (not even a majority of those associated with it) could have resisted. 

The trials, of course, would have taken much longer. And they would be even more devastating. Families of innocent victims – Muslims as well as Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews – would take centre stage in a drama of moral condemnation recalling the Nuremberg Tribunals. Instead of appearing as the wished to be seen – as heroic, idealistic figures, battling an abstract evil against overwhelming odds – they would have appeared as they are: as the blood-drenched murders of innocents. Such trials would have utterly discredited the terrorists for generations to come – if not forever – and created a significant opening for voices of progressive reform within Islam.

It would have been a spectacular victory for the rule of law, the fellowship of faiths and America’s moral superiority – foregoing vengeance for justice. It would have utterly discredited bin Laden’s brand of extremism – not just the use of violence, but the underlying ideology as well. It would have protected the US from any similar attacks for at least a generation or more – plenty of time to seriously deal with the underlying grievances bin Laden had exploited, and hoped to continue exploiting until he reshaped the Islamic world to his liking. Plenty of time for a long-term justice option, encompassing social, political and economic justice for all. Plenty of time for religious Muslims to reclaim their faith from its political hijackers. And plenty of time for Christians and Jews to do the same.

Looking forward

Of course, the moment for making such a choice is long gone. But nonetheless, it’s still important to recognise what that choice was – disregarded though it may have been. The reason why is simple: history is full of surprises. The Arab Spring is proof enough of that.

The United States today remains deeply scarred by 9/11 – not so much by the attack itself, but by our own self-defeating pattern of response. The damage done by Bush’s foolish and intemperate reaction has been compounded by Obama’s tacit blessing, his refusal to even consider a desperately-needed investigation into how deeply the US has been led astray into what Dick Cheney called “the dark side”. Obama’s glib justification – a desire to “look forward, not backward” – is not just juvenile, it’s utterly childish.

The Nuremberg Trials were based on the premise that the only way to move forward was to look back, and learn the lessons of how people came to mistake the darkness for the light. This same premise has been affirmed again and again since then – most notably in South Africa’s “Peace and Reconciliation” process, a process that has since been emulated in other countries as well. 

Obama’s purported desire was to avoid political conflict, to promote a coming together to deal with immediate problems. But this desire has been thwarted at every turn. It’s not surprising: Those who do evil, believing it to be good, will never stop doing it until they are forced to face a reckoning. Obama’s unwillingness to force that reckoning is a sign of profound moral failure – not just his own moral failure, but America’s. Until that reckoning is forced, the US will continue to be in thrall to its dark side, not just in foreign affairs, but in all things. The Tea Party, for example, is merely another form this dark side has taken, as seen in their repeated political hostage-taking. And the more we try to pretend that we can reason with that dark side, compromise with and accommodate it, the more of a foothold it comes to have inside each of us.

To fight the monsters, without becoming one of them. Ten years after 9/11, that is the challenge we face. As it always is.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newsletter.

You can follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.