Americans are not very good at self-reflection. Whether this is an American cultural trait or a result of hyper-nationalism and national myths is a good question. Meaning, this lack of self-reflection could be part of a toxic brew. It also could be the result of being a great power. One thing that we have seen historically is that the super-powers of their age tend to develop a sense of superiority over other cultures. Rome did it. Spain did it. The British did. We are, and American exceptionalism is one form it takes.
On September 11 Americans were on top of the world. None would dare attack us. We were the products of the American century. Some were getting ready for a New American Century. Francis Fukuyama had declared the end of history. We also believed that two oceans were protective against anybody who dared want to attack us. For a regular military force, we were mostly correct. What happened on 911 defied imagination. We were told this was a new tactic, coming from cowards who were barbarians.
Never mind terrorism was not new to the United States. Timothy McVey’s attack at the Oklahoma Federal Building was terrorism, even if we still refuse to classify it that way. That was just the most recent obvious example of domestic terrorism. Al Qaida used bombings of American embassies in Africa. They even bombed the World Trade Center in the 1990s. The only reason more damage did not occur was that they were over engineered.
The people who live in the Three State Region feel particularly hurt, and in many cases remain traumatized by the attack. They are not unique. However, in many ways, they feel none gets their very real fear and pain. And while they have something of a point, the whole country was affected to some extent. I know that when my sister called, in a panic, I knew something major happened. I could hear it in her voice. When she told me it hit me. My husband had left on a Western Pacific Patrol in peacetime. He would come home in wartime. For me, it was hours after the first tower fell. I was at Oahu, in Navy Housing.
I knew that my husband was part of the tip of that spear. While I did not know where they were, I knew we were at war. So yes, military families had a knot in the stomach. A tight knot I might add. Then there were the passengers that were stuck in both Canada and Mexico, for a little while. It was very inconvenient for them. But they were taken care off. Truly unknown are those who were stuck in Hawaii, and could not leave the Islands for a few days.
I remember clearly, as soon as Once the store on base opened, my first move that morning was to go buy powdered milk, canned meats, and other shelf-stable goods. Why? I knew that Hawaii would have trouble with food. How did I know? It had issues, less severe, it was more self-sufficient, after Pearl Harbor. After 911 we were running out of fresh food, and especially milk. After a few days, the Air Force started to fly milk and fresh vegetables into Hickman Air Force base. Dependents were well-taken care of. I was glad I did buy those goods. I included water jugs and first aid supplies. Training as a first responder kicked in.
But the continental United States saw two things: The first was the colored images of the threat matrix. These were carefully calibrated and used to keep people afraid, as civil liberties were taken away. Many of those have not come back either. The other was the statement from President George W Bush. GO SHOPPING! This reduced the war effort to just those doing the direct dirty work, or their families. This pattern has remained. We are in the midst of the longest war in American history. However, outside of military bases, you would be hard pressed to notice this.
We also declared a war on a military tactic. This is one we perfected during the revolution. In case you wonder, the House of Commons did refer to the American patriots as terrorists. We used it because a head-on fight was not one we could really win. Hit and run on the other hand…we did, and did it well.
However, after what seemed to be ten seconds, a critical question quickly disappeared from media coverage. WHY? Why was the country attacked? What could drive young people, who were well educated, and middle to upper middle class, to fly planes into two buildings and the Pentagon? Incidentally, they were neither Iraqi or Afghan, this also matters.
There are reasons why we have avoided this question. Quite frankly, the failure of 911 was not just a failure of intelligence, but also one of imagination, and hubris. We could not, as a culture, conceive that people who grew up in countries that we consider inferior, pulling this off. Nor are we capable of asking, did we have something to do with this? This last question is akin to treason, but it is high time that we ask it. If we keep thinking this way, we are bound to be surprised, again.
The roots of the attack are in the 1970s and ’80s. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan (where incidentally Empires go to die), triggered a series of undercover operations from our government. We were to enter the grand chess game in Central Asia. It was a way to weaken the Soviets. As part of this, we created the modern day Taliban. It is not that we hatched the ideology that underpins their movement. I suspect that even now we don’t understand it. However, we gave them training and provided weapons. These weapons include the shoulder launched ground to air sidewinder. It was the great equalizer against the Hind gunships that the Red Army used. It hurt them greatly, and morale in the mostly conscript Red Army collapsed. When the Russians pulled out, the West, not just the US, forgot about it.
The country quickly collapsed and entered yet another period of civil war. In time the Taliban came on top, imposing on others their almost medieval Islam. Afghanistan remained in a form of civil war, with tribes fighting tribes from that moment on. Without 911, none of us would care much about Afghanistan. I would argue most Americans do not care about it either. Except for the occasional mention in the news, most people have no idea where it is. Unless a loved one is in harm's way, the longest American war may as well not be happening. We spent trillions already, but the reality is that it affects almost no American directly. The most obligation people feel is to thank veterans for their service. Perhaps offer a military discount here or there.
Nineteen of the attackers were Saudi Arabian. We rarely hear that anymore. There is a critical question that is asked even less. Why?
One of the reasons for the Saudi street anger with the United States is the first Gulf War. After the war, we stationed troops in Jeddah, Saudi-Arabia. Most Americans don’t know this. Nor the reasons why. These days we have troops in five bases in the Kingdom. They support strategic operations, and potential Air Force operations. They are part of our strategic work to contain Iran.
But for many young middle-class Saudis, these bases were not welcomed. These bases are inside a kingdom that sees itself as the ultimate guardian of Islam. While most Americans will have trouble with the history of the Crusades, American forces are perceived as a crusader Christian army. For Osama Bin Ladin, who we Incidentally trained and funded him when he fought the Russians in Afghanistan, this was not minor. If we pulled the troops out after the first gulf war, likely 911 would have never happened. If we pulled them out after American embassies were attacked in Africa, there is still a chance 911 would not have happened.
This is why Senator Robert Byrd asked in open session during early Congressional hearings after the attacks… was this blowback?
These are but two examples of the complex questions we refuse to ask.
Go shopping. Be a good consumer. Don’t think. Chiefly, don’t ask questions.
This is the longest war in American history. When all is said and done, the Taliban may be back in charge of the country we would prefer to forget. We have spent trillions of dollars and close to five thousand troops have died. Could a 911 like an attack happen again? Absolutely. The lessons, including underestimating others and not asking questions have not been learned. We still refuse to.
Instead, …we have indeed gone shopping, and have created a coterie of conspiracy theories to explain this, that in many cases do not include the perpetrators. Why? Nineteen pissed off middle class well educated mostly Saudi men could not do this. The theories are also part of that refusal to learn and our inherent racism.
Sep 13, 2018.