Thursday, September 9, 2010

Reflecting on 9/11: Lessons Still Not Learned

On August 7, 1964, Congress, urged on by President Johnson, passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  The measure passed unanimously in the House and with only two dissenting votes in the Senate.  Three days before this the President had ordered retaliatory bombing on North Vietnam in response to an alleged attack on one of our destroyers on August 4th.  In his speech to the nation, President Johnson said that “we seek no wider war” and that these actions were being taken “in support of freedom and in defense of peace.”  This resolution was the camel’s nose into the dark tent of the Vietnam War.

Yet, today, most Americans can’t tell you what the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was, and more tragically, even among the cognoscenti who could, most of them don’t know that declassified documents and tapes have shown that President Johnson and Secretary of Defense MacNamara lied and obfuscated about the events of August 2nd and 4th in order to further their own agendas in Southeast Asia.  (There is a helpful book which compiles the White House tapes of that time period and features these conversations.)  What does a forgotten incident and a forgotten resolution tell us, so many years later?  That history repeats itself, and that because we are an ignorant people, we don’t even know it has repeated.

This Saturday is the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.  These attacks were the pretext for an emotional response which President Bush delivered on September 20th, 2001.  In this speech, President Bush not only targeted Al-Qaeda, but every single terrorist group in existence, committing us to an endless and unwinnable “War on Terror.”  The Afghan Taliban government (which we had birthed and nurtured through our support of the mujahedeen in their previous war against the Soviets) asked for the United States to produce proof that Bin Laden had orchestrated the attacks and pledged to turn him over to us in exchange for it.  President Bush, predictably, responded with an invasion.

But this was not all.  The events of 9/11 led to the passage of the Orwellian-named “Patriot Act” which was passed into law in the dead of night, and was read by virtually no one because of its 342 page length.  This act, to this day not well-known or understood by the majority of either those who voted to make it law nor by those whom it ostensibly governs, gives the President and the government broad powers to spy on and imprison American citizens, without warrants, charges, or habeas corpus.

9/11 was also used as part of the pretext for invading Iraq.  Just as with the Gulf of Tonkin case, military intelligence was skewed and distorted in order to produce “evidence.” In this case, the “evidence” was of weapons of mass destruction.  Secretary of State Colin Powell bravely went to his political funeral at the UN as he presented “evidence” of chemical sites in Iraq that were later shown to be outdated photographs or simply phantoms in the desert.   The Congress, no longer in the emotional shock of 9/11 in October 2002, more strongly dissented; still, the Iraq War Resolution – a resolution to attack a country that had not attacked the United States and posed no clear or present danger to our national security interests – passed in the House 296-133 and in the Senate 77-23.  As you read the dissenting words of those 2002 debates, you clearly hear the echo of the lone two dissenting senators to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964: “That means sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business. which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn, which is steadily being escalated. This resolution is a further authorization for escalation unlimited. I am opposed to sacrificing a single American boy in this venture” (Senator Ernest Gruening, D-Alaska); “I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States…I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake. I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake” (Senator Wayne Morse, D-Oregon).

As we look back at the almost decade since 9/11, we must ask ourselves: what have we done and what have we failed to do?

In Afghanistan

We are still at war with a people that have managed to best both the British and the Soviet Empires because they will not allow outsiders to tell them how to run their own country.  General Stanley McChrystal quite infamously flamed out, in of all places, Rolling Stone.  President Obama understandably relieved an insubordinate general, but failed to reflect upon the never-ending war in this quagmire of empires, instead choosing to “double down” in a new “surge.”  We remain at war with the Afghan people, we continue to prop up a puppet in the person of Harmid Karzai whose enforceable jurisdiction barely qualifies him to be the Mayor of Kabul, and we will likely, as we did in Vietnam, withdraw only to watch the country collapse into civil war.  

In Iraq

As this article is being written, American “combat troops” have left Iraq but nearly 50,000 have remained to support and augment the Iraqi security forces.  Despite years of hand-holding, including President Bush’s politically unpopular but militarily effective “surge,” the country is still unable to govern itself.  Iraq has been without a government for nearly 6 months now, as Sunni and Shia (terms most Americans are still unable to parse) cannot seem to find a way to work together.  There are 70,000 troops in Germany and the entire Third Marine Division on the island of Okinawa nearly 60 years after World War II.  We already have a model for garrisoning troops in areas of past war and we may continue to follow this prescription in Iraq.  If we were to completely leave Iraq, the country would likely collapse into civil war.  Colin Powell’s prescient (and unheeded) words to President Bush in Crawford during the lead-up to the war provide a tragic and fitting coda: “you break it (Iraq), you own it.”

In America

Although Guantanamo Bay is closing as a prison for terror suspects, many new secret prisons and “black sites” for interrogation have been opened.  This is, of course, to say nothing of the disgusting track record of Guatanamo Bay as a detainment camp.  Since September 11th 2001, 775 detainees have been brought to Guantanamo.  At this moment, 176 remain.  The vast majority of detainees (a cute legal novelty dreamed up by the Bush Administration) have been freed without charges or trial and only 3 have been convicted of anything.

Despite the fact that every single one of us who pays for air travel pays for our own security fees (check the “September 11th Security Fee” on your itinerary next time you are feeling curious) our government has still managed to feed us the lie that we can always be safe everywhere instead of the more reasonable and adult explanation that there are bad people out there who want to hurt others and that the best that security can do is manage this.  Incidents of domestic terrorism have risen since 9/11.

Worse than this, we now submit to naked body scanners at airports, which expose us to untold levels of radiation and worse, the indignity of the knowledge that our government archives, and does not delete, these images.

In the world

Terrorist attacks around the world have surged since 9/11, and as unmanned drones continue to bomb Pakistani civilians, Pashtuns on either side of the Afghan/Pakistani border will become increasingly radicalized.  But then again, we are no stranger to radicalization.  In 1998, acknowledging America’s role in arming Osama bin Laden and giving his movement impetus, Zbigniew Brzezinski infamously said: “What was more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”  History has come to show Mr Brzezinski’s words (and conclusions) as rather simplistic and overstated.


Most Americans continue to view Islam in its mild Americanized expression.  In France, despite the fact that Laïcité is the secular law of the land, Muslims routinely (and with impunity) shut down city streets for Friday prayer.  This is to say nothing of the riots and murders that happened because of the Mohammed cartoon controversy.  Europe is becoming Muslim simply because Christians aren’t reproducing.  Muslims are reproducing, and at far more than the replacement rate, and so Europe is losing its even vestigial Christian remnants.

Perhaps we in America don’t see Islam as a threat because we still buy into the panacea of multiculturalism, which sees as inimical the idea of a people with a distinct cultural identity.  Everybody is the same as everyone else, and everyone contributes equally.  We in America see Islam as one more color of our multicultural rainbow to embrace, when we should see that it is a storm which threatens to smash the remaining stained glass windows of Western Civilization.

Lingering Questions

As new construction moves forward at Ground Zero in New York, and as “conservatives” mendaciously attempt to appropriate the rights of owners of private property, Americans still don’t know exactly what happened on 9/11.  The official government conspiracy theory is that 19 hijackers flew planes into buildings, that we had no clue this was going to happen and could do nothing to stop it, and that Osama bin Laden singlehandedly masterminded everything.

The 9/11 Commission Report (never read by most Americans) doesn’t address the anomaly of Building 7, which fell later in the day despite never having been hit by aircraft (or that its collapse was announced on the BBC 20 minutes before it happened).  It doesn’t address the fact that NORAD stood down while hijacked planes freely roamed the sky for 40 minutes.  And, it doesn’t address the President’s Daily Brief of August 6th, 2001, entitled “Bin Laden determined to strike in the US.”  The conventional wisdom has been to blame the terrorists rather than to examine our own failures.  The conventional wisdom prevented us from questioning the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and Colin Powell’s fraudulent UN presentation.  


The Gulf of Tonkin was used to get America into the Vietnam War.  We learned, years later, that it was a lie, which necessarily premised the entire Vietnam War on a lie.  9/11 had much more juice, and scared Americans into two wars abroad and a nascent police state at home.  If we do not study and reflect upon the events of our history, we will be ill-equipped not only to judge our present situation, but also to recognize a new 9/11 when it happens.

To those whose deaths we remember this Saturday, our prayers are that your deaths will no longer be used to promote illegal and unjust wars and the end of domestic liberty.  We pray that we may, as yet, recover our republic, in a small way, by reading history, and more importantly, by understanding it.

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