I intended to publish this essay on the 20th anniversary of the horrifying attacks of 9/11, but I needed more time to process my thoughts. On that day, I was 16, living in Los Angeles, a junior in high school. I remember three things in particular. The first is waking up and standing around the TV with my parents, watching CNN as they carried live pictures of the smoldering towers and the scenes at the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The second is walking into my first class and the teacher stating, simply, that everything was about to change. And the third is the persistent thought, which held fast to me as the surreal day stretched into a surreal week, that this felt like a movie.
What I could not imagine, what even that prescient teacher could not have possibly imagined, was how the subsequent twenty years would unfold. Nothing captures the disaster that has been our response to unspeakable tragedy better than what happened, in our name, on August 29, 2021. It was then that, in response to an ISIS suicide bombing outside the Kabul Airport, we killed ten people in a retaliatory drone strike.
At first, we were told that the attack was a “righteous strike” targeting the militants responsible for killing 60 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members in that suicide bombing on August 26th. But as with so much about our War on Terror, it was a lie. And after a NY Times investigation, the Pentagon was forced to admit that we had not killed terrorists but rather three adults and seven kids, including a father of four who worked for Nutrition and Education International, an aid group. At the time we murdered him, he was loading canisters of water to bring to his family. Who will be held accountable?
Nor was this an anomalous event. Since 9/11, we have murdered civilians–and, yes, terrorists–not only in Afghanistan but Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, and elsewhere. I am not here to argue whether or not the War on Terror has made us safer; that is something worth debating. But the incontrovertible fact is that we have killed scores of innocent civilians. In Afghanistan, the chaos we unleashed by attacking–with no real plan–a war-torn, impoverished country, resulted in the deaths of over 47,000 civilians, 400 aid workers, 70 journalists, 66,000 Afghan military and police, 3,800 U.S. contractors, and 2,400 U.S service members. (All data from the AP.) And that is just one country.
In the run up the invasion of Iraq I became heavily involved in the anti-war movement, attending countless rallies, big (500,000+ in San Francisco) and small (a handful of people holding placards). That the war was blatantly and obviously based on a lie didn’t seem to matter, for we were already well into the “If you don’t support everything supposedly done in the name of freedom and security then you are on the side of the terrorists.” That attitude led, at least indirectly, to our torture program; the curtailment of civil liberties at home; Guantánamo Bay and indefinite detention; rising xenophobia; and, it could be argued, the polarization that eventually made fathomable an insurrection against our democracy, inspired by a sitting president.
We could have honored the victims of 9/11 in so many different ways. Using it as a moment to build on the global outpouring of grief and support to strengthen international institutions; investing in the eradication of poverty and hunger; re-assessing our foreign policy; and tackling climate change and disease. Instead we devolved into renaming french fries “freedom fries” because that nation refused to support our invasion of Iraq. Instead we undertook to spend trillions of dollars on national security at the expense of social and environmental priorities. We chose the path of empty bravado and false patriotism–as though the best way to support freedom was to drop bombs, plant American flags, and slap Never Forget and These Colors Don’t Run bumper stickers on our cars.
Today the gravest threat to humanity is not terrorism; I find it hard to argue that it ever was. Millions are dying of a pandemic fueled by disinformation, distrust, and disinvestment in preparedness and response; more Americans are dying of COVID-19 every two days than died on 9/11. Authoritarianism is on the rise, domestically and internationally. And global warming has become a climate emergency. What we do in our name in the coming years–whether we secure voting rights and take the lead on climate change, whether we take ownership of our foreign policy–will determine to what extent my two-year-old son will be able to enjoy a prosperous future.
We still live in a democracy–for now. There is always still time to do what’s right and needed. Congress must pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the Build Back Better Act (the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill); those debates are happening right now. The correct response to 9/11 was not to go about our business while the guys in charge–and it was mostly guys–took care of us. Nor is the correct response to today’s crises to look away. What’s more, taking action can be fun, joyous, rewarding–especially on those occasions that we have policy victories (such as, earlier this year, when the state of Illinois passed the 36% APR rate cap for which Capital Good Fund had been advocating.)
So please, get involved with and donate to groups like Indivisible, 350.org, the Sunrise Movement, Climate Justice Alliance, Never Again Action, Vote Forward, and more! Call your federal, state, and local officials. Join protests. Write op-eds. It’s the only way to ensure that what is done in our name is aligned with our values–the values that were so tragically and callously attacked on 9/11.
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