All Writings
September 7, 2003

Commemorating 9/11 With Trepidation

Two years later, the shock from the 9/11 terrorist attack is still with us as is the memory of those who perished that day. We owe great debt to the men and women who have worked since then so tirelessly to prevent future attacks. Yet most of us remain anxious. As we go about our daily routine, many of us have become even more appreciative of one another and of what we have than ever before, due mainly to our lingering fears and heightened sense of vulnerability stemming from the acute awareness that it can happen again. The events of 9/11 remain embedded in our consciousness not simply because of the terrible losses we sustained: we were also awakened to a new reality that seemed unimaginable only a day before.

Today, as we survey all that has transpired in the aftermath of 9/11, many Americans are filled with increasing trepidation and concern for the future. Terrorist attacks worldwide are escalating; the fires of Islamic militancy and disaffection are raging; Iraq is in a state of near anarchy; the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in shambles; weapons of mass destruction are spreading; our relationship with many of our allies is strained, and hatred for America is increasing.

Many good measures have been taken to counter terrorism both domestically and globally. But the Bush administration has made extremely serious mistakes in executing the war on terrorism, as is particularly evident in the occupation of Iraq. This country, which had no proven links to terrorism, has now become the center of terrorist attacks. What is perhaps most disheartening about the current situation there is that it has not made the administration question the effectiveness of its strategy. Herein lies the danger: The worsening situation in Iraq and the virtual collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, known as the Road Map, have shown that many of the assumptions made by this administration derived from false illusions about the Middle East and an arrogant approach that led it to try to resolve complex situations unilaterally. Try as he may to put the best face on it, President Bush failed, in his brief address to the nation, to acknowledge that he and his foreign policy team have been terribly wrong in their assessment of the Iraqi reality and the politics of a region which has witnessed constant bloody conflict for nearly a century.

New terrorist attacks on the scale of 9/11 cannot be prevented unless we: (1) realize that the war against terrorism is global and that we need our friends, allies, and the UN to fight alongside us every step of the way; (2) begin to focus on the sources of terrorism and initiate policies to eradicate them; (3) understand the causes of terrorism and develop strategies to neutralize anti-American sentiments, and (4) appropriate the necessary money to combat terrorism rather than squander our limited resources on reckless ventures.

The war on terrorism is not one in which as President Bush simplistically put it: "You are either with us or against us." The war is highly complex, intricate, and political, involving many nations with different agendas, national security issues, and economic considerations from our own. By taking a unilateralist stance and being insensitive to their needs, we have squandered much of the overwhelming global sympathy that 9/11 engendered and undermined our international position and global leadership. We must return to the drawing board and begin to mend our differences with our partners who, of course, recognize our supremacy but do not wish to be bullied by us. Sure and confident of our power, we must invite the UN to take charge of Iraq, while we can still play a leading role. The liberation of Iraq and its reconstruction can be an American legacy; but only with full and comprehensive UN involvement can we hope to achieve these ends.

We may trace the present terrorism to a variety of factors, including an historic animosity toward the West, the terrible social, economic, and political conditions that are the legacy of despotic Arab and Muslim regimes, and the near six-decade-old Arab-Israeli conflict which has inflamed passions throughout the same period, especially in the Middle East. The hatred for America arises from perceptions of America's role and place in relation to this combustible mix. We are accused of being exploitive of Arab resources and wealth, responsible for keeping corrupt Arab regimes in power, and of not being evenhanded, particularly in our handling of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition, Islamists accuse us of corrupting their societies, and they resent greatly our military presence in the region. Finally, we are perceived as arrogant and uncaring unilateralists who are willing to go to any lengths to protect narrow strategic interests such as oil. These perceptions of us shape the war on terrorism. We must either disengage or develop a more coherent and purposeful strategy to show that we really care and that our stated commitment to democracy and freedom is not a mere slogan. Iraq may possibly provide us with such an opportunity. Although our invasion has added to the anger against us, it can be an impetus to changing the negative perception held by most Arab and Muslim people. This is possible only if we help the Iraqi people stand on their own feet, develop a clear exit strategy, and leave behind a competent representative Iraqi government.

The oil consideration continues to blind us to the realities and possibilities of the current situation. At present, we are spending between $7 to $8 billion a month on the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, where no weapons of mass destruction were found and no link to Al Qaeda established. This sum represents more than the combined total of all of our other anti-terrorism spending. Meanwhile, state and local security agencies are starving for money to improve their security, foreign nations willing to assist us in our war on terrorism are begging for more funds, and even our own intelligence agencies are strapped for money to fulfill their ever-expanding role. Look, for example, at the paradox of our improved security measures: We thoroughly screen airport passengers and their baggage, but do not check the cargo that goes into the belly of passenger planes because of budgetary constraints. Tens of thousands of containers come to our shores or cross our borders on railroad tracks, yet less than one tenth of one percent of these are checked because we do not have the money to pay for the manpower or to purchase the necessary technology. For the same reasons, the security for thousands of major installations such as nuclear reactors, electrical grids, and dams is shockingly inadequate.

In pursuing terrorist operatives, targeting their leaders and planners, and identifying terrorist cells inside and outside the United States, our security forces and military have performed admirably. But where is the focus on the sources of terrorism? For example, the Saudi government finances thousands of Madrasat (religious schools) in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Gaza, Egypt, and other Arab and Muslim countries. Millions of young boys study the Koran exclusively, with a special focus on the Saudi branch of Wahabism. Local mullahs and teachers frequently distort Koranic teaching, lacing it with poisonous anti-American and anti-Semitic propaganda. When these students graduate, they are perfect candidates for future recruitment by Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. We might have killed or captured two-thirds of Al Qaeda operatives as Mr. Bush said, but scores are being groomed to take their place. The administration must begin to use appropriate strategies, including coercion, to stop Saudi Arabia and other nations from deliberately or inadvertently contributing to the future ranks of terrorists. We also need to do whatever it takes to persuade these governments to introduce gradual social and political reforms and so give their young people some hope.

9/11 left us in shock, but in many ways it strengthened our resolve and forced us to rethink our priorities both as individuals and as a nation. Still, on each anniversary we must ask ourselves not only if we feel safer than the previous year, but if we have come any closer to dealing with the causes and sources of terrorism. On the eve of the second anniversary, I am not sure we can answer yes to either. Hence we commemorate this day with continued fear and trepidation.