All Writings
September 9, 2002

The Lessons Of September 11th

As we commemorate the first anniversary of September 11th, we remember those who lost their lives and pray that they found their eternal resting place in heaven and hope the living–family and friends–can draw some comfort from that. And as we contemplate that tragic event and the turbulent year following it, perhaps we should ask ourselves: What have we learned from this brutal assault on our liberty, why have we been chosen to endure this sorrow, and what course must we chart to end the scourge of terrorism?

The first lesson is that we must know and understand our enemy. Al Qaeda's is an atypical terrorist organization–internationalist, insidious, and ruthless. Its members are inspired by religious fervor and the illusional objective of liberating Arab and Muslim masses from the rule of their current corrupt regimes and the misery of their living conditions. The terrorists have targeted the United States because they blame it for keeping many of these governments in power and for corrupting their societies and desecrating their lands. They have determined that capturing the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim masses is a critical first step to achieving their goal. To achieve this end, all means–including distorting the truth and perverting the meaning of the Koran to mislead the public as well as resorting to, and even idealizing, violence–seem justifiable. Nothing, of course, is as powerful as using hatred to rally the masses. America is a convenient target of this hatred, because we are virtually omnipresent, powerful, dominant, easy to identify and to point to our hand in the corruption and abuses of these regimes. The greater and more visible we are, the greater and more noble Al Qaeda's cause has become.

As we commemorate September 11th, we should remember that following the war in Afghanistan, with the defeat of the Taliban and the destruction of much of the Al Qaeda infrastructure, we have become even more than ever the object of their twisted schemes of revenge and retribution. Regardless of the heavy losses its has sustained, Al Qaeda remains a potent terrorist organization and continues to pose a serious threat to the United States. However, to combat it successfully, we must distinguish between Al Qaeda, which is probably irredeemable, and, therefore, must be targeted for destruction, and other Islamists groups in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Jordan–to name a few. These nations, by virtue of their socio-economic conditions, are fertile breeding grounds for Al Qaeda's new recruits. But, left to their own devises, the agenda of the Islamist groups in these states is local in nature and such organizations direct their grievances and violence mostly against their own governments.

This brings us to the second lesson from September 11th and the events that followed it, and this lesson is about the "connection" between Islam and terrorism. As a religion, Islam does not promote wanton violence and strongly condemns suicide bombings. But when Islam is highjacked by fanatics who use its teachings to justify their heinous criminal acts, it becomes the responsibility of every Muslim to defend the integrity of their religion. This is particularly important for Arab- and Muslim- Americans, who largely appear to be intimidated by the more vociferous Islamist fanatics, even though these extremists are far outnumbered by the silent majority. We, as Americans, regardless of our religious and cultural background, have a responsibility to denounce the many assumptions made in the name of religion designed to justify what is clearly wrong and unholy, no matter who is making them or what authority they are allegedly citing to justify their thoughts and actions. Suicide bombings, in Israel or New York City, cannot be rationalized or condoned. The bombers are not martyrs; they are, murderers, albeit misguided. They debase rather than glorify Islam. Arab and Muslim-Americans should not be defensive of their faith. But those who find comfort in self-denial and argue that Muslims could not possibly commit such crimes against humanity are forfeiting their obligations as true Muslims. Doing or saying nothing raises serious questions, not necessarily about their patriotism as Americans, but about their devotion to their religion and their being true defenders of Islam.

On this anniversary, they must vow to speak out. They can demonstrate to their brothers and sisters in the Arab and Muslim world, in words and in action, the wonders and beauties of living in America. Having experienced it first hand, they are more qualified than Americans of other faiths to convey the value and the meaning of freedom. And despite America's many shortcomings, Arab- and Muslim-Americans must disabuse other Muslims of their misperceptions about the United States and the values for which it stands.

The third lesson relates to the question of how much have we learned about terrorism and its root causes since September 11th. Will we some day be in a position to say that we have reasonably eliminated terrorism as a threat to our way of life? Certainly, as a free society, we are unwilling to succumb to terror indefinitely, and so this is a legitimate question to ask. Unfortunately, there is much to be desired about our policies, especially, in the Middle East; indeed, they have helped to make this area the breeding ground of terrorism. We have not changed much about our terrible addiction for cheap oil which compels us to support corrupt regimes throughout the region in order to keep a steady supply flowing into the United States; one of the payoffs of these policies is the intense anti-Americanism there. Our oil addiction explains why we have done next-to-nothing to promote human rights or help to build democratic institutions in countries like Saudi Arabia which would give hope to the young who are trapped between rigid and ruthless rulers and American complacency: Young Saudis call it a conspiracy. And our love of oil also explains why we have not made any major effort to invest in and encourage sustainable development in countries like Egypt, where poverty is on the rise, alienation is rampant, idleness is a way of life, and anti-Americanism is the major pastime. Yes, we may eventually rid ourselves of every known Al Qaeda member and cell, but there will still be tens of thousands of young and impressionable men and women waiting in the wings to join the anti-American parade. This is the product of our policies in the Middle East which are based on mutual exploitation–cheap oil in exchange for protection of unsavory rulers, who are riding on the backs of their despairing populace.

If the events commemorating September 11th come and go, and we have not resolved to become energy independent, specifically of Middle Eastern oil by 2010, then we have learned nothing from what happened. We cannot deal with the root-causes of terrorism as long as we continue to be addicted to Arab oil and depend on and protect despots who supply it. It is the thirst for that oil that compromises our position and values, and it is our insatiable appetite for more oil that prevents us from initiating policies and assistance programs designed to lift up the people in the Middle East and give them hope. And it is our drunken dependence on oil that will leave us vulnerable to future terrorist attacks and blackmail.

The fourth lesson from September 11th is that we need our allies to wage a successful war on terrorism. Recognizing this fact should not infringe upon our ability or right to act when we deem it to be necessary for our safety and security. It is the nature of Al Qaeda and its pervasiveness in so many countries, however, that makes the coalition of as many nations as possible in the war against terrorism imperative. Yet, since our requirements, priorities, and preferences may inadvertently differ from those of our allies, disagreements are bound to surface, and sometimes intensely, as in the case of Iraq. We see Iraq as a rogue state, led by a ruthless leader with weapons of mass destruction, and as such, our government views any attack on it to oust him as an extension of our war on terrorism. But our allies view the administration's determination to oust Saddam as overzealous, inconsistent with international norms of conduct, and falling outside the realm of the U.S. mandate to wage a war on Al Qaeda. Surely, it is our responsibility to persuade our allies to see the Iraqi menace our way; to that end, we have to produce all the necessary evidence to make our case. Perhaps most critically, we must demonstrate that every attempt possible to rid Iraq of its WMD has been made and has failed. We must do so not simply because we need to justify our war against Saddam, but as the only superpower, we have a moral obligation to be doubly careful about how we exert our prerogatives. A score of other considerations must be weighed before we make a final decision, including how our attempts to oust the Iraqi leader will affect the future war on terrorism, possibly destabilize the region–especially Jordan and Saudi Arabiaâ€"increase the possibility of oil shortages, raise the chances of Israeli involvement, endanger the Iraqi people and of course injure our relations with our coalition partners.

As we try to satisfy these requirements, we must remember that September 11th and its consequences place on us a heavy responsibility. We must stop short of nothing to defend our citizens and protect our friends and allies, if that includes ousting Saddam Hussein from power by force, then we must do what is required of us. But we must never rush into the deployment of the massive force, as would be necessary in removing him, under the cover of September 11th, that is, to settle an old score or to satisfy a some dubious strategic objective. Long after Saddam Hussein's demise, we will still need our coalition partners to work with us to free our people from the scourge of terrorism.

The fifth lesson provided by September 11 was our rude awakening to current realities. The attack has jolted our sense of security and exposed our weaknesses in a number of areas, especially in the ways we gather, decipher, disseminate, and use information. Unfortunately, a year later, our domestic intelligence remains severely underfunded, and the FBI and the CIA continue to use outdated computers to the detriment of our capacity to optimally utilize intelligence gathering. Although much has been corrected since last September involving the sharing of intelligence, chiefly between and the FBI and CIA, old habits die hard. The heads and managements of both agencies might have finally begun to learn the importance of sharing information on time and in finding a better way to link together information, however seemingly innocent or disjointed. That said, the tradition of fanatically safeguarding intelligence prerogatives is alive and well in both agencies, and this ingrained attitude will not merely hamper the effective use of vital information but could make us repeat the failures of our intelligence prior to September 11th.

The second shortcoming of our intelligence apparatus is the lack of human intelligence. For many years, we have abandoned much of our reliance on our human intelligence sources (on-location spies, moles, and informants) in favor of electronic intelligence- gathering via satellites, air surveillance, eavesdropping, and the like. However sophisticated these methods and tools are, they do not entirely substitute for the human intelligence that crosses the t's and dotes the i's of intelligence gathering. Israeli authorities assert that it was their extensive human intelligence that stopped them from sustaining ten times as many suicide bombings, as the targeting of known terrorists would have been virtually impossible. A renewed focus on human intelligence is both costly and time consuming. But this is one area where we cannot afford to spare any resources to do whatever it takes to recruit and train the thousands needed to complement the work of our electronic intelligence apparatus.

A final lesson that September 11th should have taught us was to shed our short memories and the comfort we often find in complacency. We have been living for too long without outside intrusion; we are accustomed to transfer our wars to other lands and never to defend ourselves here at home. We are generally a forgetful and a forgiving nation; we pride ourselves on being caring and generous, and so we remain oblivious as to why anyone would want to harm us. Our experiences in waging war against Al Qaeda during the past year, however, must teach us different ways of thinking and behaving. The war on terrorism may go on for many more months, if not years and, therefore, we cannot let our guard down.

Our enemies are pervasive, patient, and potentially deadly; they will lie in wait, hoping that sooner rather than later we will revert to our old habits, with complacency becoming again a source of comfort. But we must remain vigilant, become faster, better, and deadlier. If we wish to safeguard our liberty and freedom, we must never rest, not even if we wipe out every Al Qaeda cell and operative. This is what the victims of September 11th would want us to remember, and only in this way will we honor their memory and inherit the legacy of their ultimate sacrifice.