I’m surprised by how strongly I’m still saddened by thinking about the attacks and the many lives they ended and harmed.
I can vividly remember the horror of that day; the realization of the extent of the pain and suffering that was caused, the anger at those who participated in the attacks, and the frustration that so few crazy people can cause so much damage.
I think this was a reasonable reaction, but the question remains: What was the appropriate reaction after that?
It’s only natural, and appropriate, for people to want to strike back at those responsible, and to prevent similar future attacks. So, I think the strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan and trying to destroy the capabilities of al-Qaeda made sense, and were appropriate. Iraq is more difficult. I supported the invasion of Iraq and the ouster
of Saddam Hussein from power. I believed that he had, and sought further, weapons of mass destruction, supported and had some connections with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, hated the United States and posed a real (if indirect) threat to us. It also seemed plausible that, once Saddam was removed, Iraq could be helped to adopt a better government that would foster better institutions than existed in most of the Middle East, and provide a model that would present a real alternative to those who might otherwise choose terror. So, I thought there was a decent argument to be made that the invasion was a legitimate exercise of defensive power. It seemed to present a way to make future, similar, attacks less likely.
While I don’t think these positions were stupid or crazy, I now regret the errors of fact (about WMDs and about the number of Iraqis ready to adopt more liberal institutions) and my overestimations about the capabilities of the US. government. I, like most people, was too optimistic about the ability of our state to do what I wanted to happen. Many who may have opposed this war, make similar mistakes about domestic policy.
I’m glad that the Taliban was driven from power, Saddam was killed, and al-Qaeda has been driven into hiding with their capabilities vastly reduced. But, I oppose major extended operations with many thousands of troops. I think we’ve already achieved current results using methods that have cost a great deal more than they needed to, and further large operations will continue to cost more than they benefit us. We should probably spend a bit more time and effort training (just training!) the current Iraqi and Afghan forces to try to resist destabilizing attacks, but otherwise we should declare victory and go home.
It’s natural to try to understand catastrophes, and to accept a narrative that makes sense of it, and points to actions that help us to feel like we have some power over events like this. So, many people are invested in the idea that Islam is the enemy; that a Mosque near ground zero is offensive, or that burning Korans might be a sensible symbolic gesture. These things may be emotionally satisfying, but I don’t think they will do more long-term good than harm.
So, what should we do?
We should be careful not to overreact, and not cause more self-inflicted harm than is likely to come from enemies. We should understand that tragedies are not completely preventable. And, while such events are emotionally powerful, cost-benefit analysis should apply to them as well. Some improved measures do enhance security, but most of what we’ve done does not.
We will be safer if more people recognize that liberty is better than tyranny. Those people will make it harder for pockets of tyrannical ideologies and terrorist plotters to operate.
This will not happen by attacking people, or by reducing our own liberty for the illusion of security. It will happen by setting an example of how much better life can be under a system that’s tolerant of differences. A system that recognizes that there should be no guarantee against being offended, but there should be security against being coerced because of your peaceful differences.
Most minds won’t change overnight. But, they do change eventually if they have good reasons to change.
So, we should give them good reasons to change.