Just like everyone alive at the time remembers where he or she was when JFK was assassinated, everyone remembers 9/11 the same way. For me, a lifelong current events fan, it was strange in that when I heard about it I rolled over and went back to sleep or at least attempted to do so. I had been up late visiting my now late wife at the hospital (she would live another almost nine years). I was at my mother’s house and just like when I was a little kid mom had the morning news show on blaring throughout the house.
She opened the bedroom door and told me that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. I don’t think I had ever heard of the World Trade Center. I knew about the Empire State Building. While I certainly thought that was big news, I was dead tired and figured I would catch up on it all when I got up. But then some time later she peeked in again and said another plane had crashed. I got up. And now having just written this I think I have answered the question as to did I see that second plane crash live or a re-run. Must have been the instant replay. But it is strange to me to think that I would not have instantly got up and rushed to the TV. I think my interest in current events stemmed from sharing a combination bedroom family TV room (at a different house) with one of my brothers. When I was as young as a first grader I would wake up to the Today Show with Dave Garroway blasting at me (well blasting due to the volume of the TV set, I think Garroway was soft-spoken himself). Mom always had the TV on loud. Once when I mistakenly thought I wanted to go into teaching in my application I wrote about how I was probably the only first grader to be up to date on the Suez Crisis.
Now can I say anything useful about 9/11?
I was somewhat astounded to read in a recounting of the events of that day by some key players with the president that you or I watching events on TV (well me once I got up) had more complete up-to-the-minute news than the president and his staff who were flying around in Air Force One with sometimes only intermittent and somewhat sketchy communication. Of course they were still on the ground down in Florida when the first news from New York City hit, but relatively soon afterward took off in the president’s official plane not knowing where they were going, although the president reportedly wanted to get back to Washington as soon as possible. But his staff was not sure that would be safe.
And anyone who has followed the politics of the times should know that there were some people called “neocons” who were itching for the United States to take on a more aggressive role in the Middle East. Or to put it bluntly, they wanted the U.S. to invade Iraq. They had written a paper called Project For a New American Century and had suggested there needed to be a modern-day Pearl Harbor for the general public to be awakened and get on board to support a stronger role in the Middle East. With 9/11 they got their wish. Of course some have suggested it was all a plot by the neocons. I doubt it. Some have even suggested FDR knew about the Japanese plans for attacking Pearl Harbor and let it happen because he wanted the opposite of what the isolationists wanted. Doubt that too.
But back to the Middle East. I have not really studied the whole geopolitics of it all, but I know we vied for influence there, as we did everywhere else, during the Cold War. We wanted Middle Eastern governments to align with us and not the old Soviet Union. So what we basically did back then was try to be friendly with whatever dictator was in power and back him and if we didn’t like him we put in our own. We finally got called on that in the case of the Shah of Iran. He was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists, and they never forgave us for installing the Shah.
We played the same game in Iraq and elsewhere. It was a lot easier when the threat was just the Soviet Union. We had one big identifiable adversary and in reality the interests of the two world super powers at the time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, in some respects aligned. We both wanted to have hegemony over our own spheres of interests, keeping our adversary at bay and protecting our competing economic and political systems, capitalist democracies versus communist tyranny.
But why is the Middle East so vital? I would think oil is the major reason. Our whole modern way of life depends upon oil. And it just so happens the world’s largest reserves of oil are located in the Middle East. In addition, our world trade routes go through there. And as barren as we think of that region to be, one heck of a lot of people live there. Europe does a lot of trade with the Middle East, particularly for agricultural products. And of course it is the center of the world’s three major religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
But with the collapse of the Soviet Union we faced a more diffuse and harder to identify enemy– Islamic fundamentalists who don’t wear uniforms (except now some have that all-black attire when they attack) and are not necessarily directed by individual nation states, and who are themselves factionalized. And they as a whole are, well to put it bluntly, crazy. The Soviets were not crazy. For all of their threats they apparently did not want to blow up the world. But the Islamic terrorists seem quite willing to destroy themselves and the world along with themselves. Much harder to deal with people like that.
And while our old arch-enemy, the Soviets, incited guerilla insurgencies, such as in Vietnam, the Islamic fundamentalist type organizations use worldwide terror.
So what can we learn from 9/11?
We are in constant danger but we don’t know quite what to do. Conventional military tactics don’t work well. We should have learned that in Vietnam.
But sending out unmanned drones and offing terrorists is problematic. We end up killing innocent people and breaking our own moral code.
I think the only thing we can really say is that the world has become a much more dangerous place when we face an enemy who can hide in the shadows and yet seemingly strike anywhere anytime.
And back to conventional military tactics. While they do not always work well and are cumbersome they may sometimes be called for. Even the terrorists need a base from which to work, and while it is difficult to find them always in say Paris where they may be hidden within the protection of our own Western culture and in the throngs of Middle Eastern immigrants (and they also of course have recruited non-Middle Easterners to some extent), the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has actually gone the more conventional route and has taken physical territory. It can be fought by conventional tactics.
I was appalled when I heard Hillary Clinton the other day vow in no uncertain terms that she would never insert American ground troops into the Middle East. How can she know she won’t face the fact she might have to? And I am sure she would if she thought she had to. But you give potential adversaries encouragement when you announce ahead of time that you will only go so far and then give up. So far, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Hillary have made that grave error.
You can’t pin Donald Trump down on what he would do, but talking tough is of little use too, I think. Actions speak a whole lot louder than words, and saying too much ahead of time limits your options.
What did we learn from 9/11 again?
Not enough, probably, and that there are no easy answers. And that we lack leadership. And maybe the American public itself is conflicted as to what it wants, other than for it to all go away, which it will not.
Yes, leadership. Now that I think of it, the nation seemed united with resolve in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But then it faded and George W. Bush went astray and seemed to go the wrong direction, invading Iraq, a country whose leadership had been belligerent to us (even though we had just previously backed it) but who had no known direct or even indirect involvement in 9/11. And although we seemed to at first have success in invading Afghanistan from where 9/11 was plotted, that fizzled too with a leadership that could not seem to determine how far to push and where and who wanted to hide the real cost of military victory from the public and in so doing failed to achieve it.
And some have argued the whole idea of war over 9/11 was wrong. It was not an aggressive act by a nation-state but by a band of terrorists and should have been handled as more of a law enforcement investigation.
And I forgot to mention the lingering suspicions that the Saudis (our oil-rich ally) were complicit in 9/11. Well then it would be an act by a nation state.
It is all so complicated.
And just watched something on PBS about the fact that many of the 9/11 planners or persons suspected of being involved in the plot or operation (obviously not the hijackers who all died or Osama Bin Laden who was killed by our own commandos) are in custody at Guantanamo but have not been prosecuted 15 years later. I don’t know, something about they can’t be brought to the mainland U.S. to our courts due to an act of Congress. Gee, why do they have to be brought to the U.S.? We didn’t hold the Nuremberg trials in the U.S. and we didn’t hang Gen. Tojo in the U.S.