20 Years Later

This week marks the 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001; such an occurrence would have generated significant emotion on its own but with the United States removing troops from Afghanistan and the ensuing chaos such tensions are even higher. I had a post written about this event when I saw an editorial cartoon posted by a veteran titled “How Long was the War in Afghanistan” which reminded me of the personal cost to suffered over the last 20 years. That article took me back 20 years, I remembered sitting next to a friend as we learned a plane had hit the Pentagon. I recall her breaking down in tears because her dad worked in that building, obviously there was little I, or any of her friends, could do to help her. It was not until she spoke to him later that evening that she was able to relax. That was the first of many times the attack and later the war would hit me. I happened to be taking a class in January 2002, which involved behind the scenes tours in Washington D.C., and I saw the tension present every time I went through security. Some of my friends changed career plans on 9/11/2001, seeing a need to join the military. Though I am thankful I never lost anyone close to me during the war, many of my friends have experienced this loss. I remember watching the celebrations in the streets of Washington and New York as President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. And I have seen people grow weary of the conflict and long for the days of peace and all of this is summarized so well in that cartoon. Because this war has cost a lifetime, and that in many ways is too high a price.

I know that on September 12,2001 I, like so many others, saw a need to take the fight to the bad guys, but after 20 years I fear the harm done has far outweighed the good. I do not want to be one of these pseudo political analysts who thinks I have the master plan, but I do see a few issues that I do not see talked about and I want to bring them to light. The first is that while so many are quick to look at young men and women in uniform and say, “Thank you for your service” we are not taking the time to truly appreciate their service. Here is what I mean, the people making the comment are not the ones in danger and are not asking if the war being fought is worth that individual’s life (let alone that individual’s mental or emotional health). There is an assumption in America that because the government said “Go!” then the cause is moral, just, and worth the sacrifice of those people’s lives. In 2001 I supported the war but I never asked if the war was right, good, or necessary. I never recognized how conservative Christian beliefs were feeding a false narrative. Christians believe we are the only true faith, therefore Islam is false and in many conservative circles immoral and completely evil. If we believe that then we are going to tacitly endorse killing them even if doing so is simply from revenge. And honestly much of this war was about revenge, that became true for me when bin Laden was killed; people celebrated bin Laden’s death, not because the war ended, but because they had revenge on him. Revenge is antithetical to Christian virtues and yet many Christians endorsed it because it was against a group of people whom they considered evil.

One of the realities about a war of revenge is there is no empathy. We wanted to take vengeance on a specific group, but could never define that group. Further, though we claimed we wanted to rid the world of evil, we never had a plan for bringing about good. We wanted to act like heroes but we only had a comic book notion of heroism. The comic book notion of a hero is someone who swoops in to save the day from the present villain, but does not correct the issues that allowed the villain to rise to power. We went to Afghanistan with the notion of ending the evil, but never changed the system that allowed that evil. Now the villain has returned and we have discovered the true cost of being a hero, commitment to changing the circumstances, and we do not like it. For 20 years we have been following the plan of “kill the bad guys” without trying to fill the void with good and the result is we have not succeeded in accomplishing our original goal. This is the part so many of my friends who veterans of the war feel so acutely; they wonder what the point of the sacrifice was. They have no sense of accomplishment and are struggling to come to terms with their actions. At least if good had come from the killing many could justify what happened. And I think this is some of what America as a whole feels, we recognize that we committed to this fight to try to end terrorism and that simply has not worked.

So 20 years after 9/11 what have we learned? How have we grown? I still remember the difficulties, fear, and hurt that the event caused. I also commend the actions of many I know who wanted to make a difference in response to the attack. But I think we must do better, 20 years of reflection has helped me to see that we must have more collective control. We sent young men and women to their deaths and used trillions of dollars in resources with no clear idea of how it was helping. If I am going to say, “Thank you for your service.” then I need to be about the task of making sure that service does not involve unjustified danger. The pain and grief of 9/11 taught me that a human life is valuable and we should seek to protect them and only send people to danger in absolute need.

Right now as politicians argue about who is responsible the war and withdrawal, we should begin to recognize we all played a part in these events. We are the ones who caused harm to the soldiers, and who abandoned our allies. We all need to take responsibility for the circumstances and begin to do better. The war took a lifetime and ended many lives and we need to learn to be better. We need to address the problems in our ways of thinking which have allowed us to reach this point. There are no easy answers to conflict but we need to begin to find better solutions because we have had 20 years of grief to remind us the current answers are not working.

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