As we approach the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, it is worth reflecting on how little has been accomplished and how much has been lost in the past year. We have demonstrated that our military machine is powerful and can smash poor countries farther back into the stone age, but we are not capable of finding Osama bin Laden, nor of putting an end to terrorism. We have demonstrated that civil liberties can be curtailed in the effort to combat terrorism, but our airports seem no safer today than they were on the day of the terrorist attacks.
We have an administration committed to perpetual war, an administration busy seeking new targets for attack. We have a new doctrine of “pre-emption,” one that the Bush administration is pushing to engage in “regime change” in Iraq, with little regard for the consequences. In the past year, the Bush administration has become even more disdainful of international law than it was previously. The administration seeks cooperation only on its own terms, and primarily for our wars on terrorism, on drugs and on the Bush-designated “axis of evil.” When it comes to arms control and disarmament, sustainable development and environmental protection, and support for human rights, the Bush administration is AWOL.
Some wonder how September 11 may be remembered in American history. I think it is likely to be remembered, at least shorter term, as the day that Americans were forced to face their own vulnerability, the same vulnerability that most of the world experiences daily. It may also be remembered as the day that opened the door to Orwell’s 1984 becoming the American reality the day that the Bush administration assumed the role of Big Brother. September 11 may be remembered as the day that initiated a headlong thrust towards trading our civil liberties for vague promises of security, and the day we received in return only the prospects of a permanent state of war.
Longer term, how posterity will remember September 11 will depend entirely on our ongoing response to it. If we continue attempting only to seek out terrorists to pound with our military force, the events of September 11 will mark a turning to ultimate disaster, to the undermining of global security and the security of the American people. September 11 brought out an immense display of American nationalism and flag-waving, and the anniversary of the attacks will undoubtedly bring out more of the same. This hyper-nationalism and its militaristic manifestations are dangerous reflections of our national insecurity.
Following September 11, the world was at first tremendously sympathetic to America for our loss, but that sympathy has by now mostly been replaced by apprehension and anger. The administration’s reliance on military force, its undermining of international law in treaty after treaty, and its failure to provide leadership toward a more peaceful and equitable world have demonstrated arrogance and disrespect for the world’s people. If the United States does not change its policies and use its enormous power to build a more equitable world, there are likely to be more tragedies like September 11 in our future.
If, on the other hand, the events of September 11 were to result in Americans realizing the need for our leadership to achieve a new cooperative global order, rooted in international law, to solve the vast array of critical problems in our world such as poverty, environmental devastation, human rights abuses and the threat of weapons of mass destruction then these terrorist attacks will be remembered as a terrible but critical wake-up.
Judging from our approach to date, there are few signs that America has awakened to the need for this kind of positive leadership. We have not yet begun to explore diplomatic and cooperative paths to change, nor the deeper question of why the attacks occurred. Rather, we have become more isolationist and unilateralist, more focused on ourselves to the exclusion of the rest of the world.
The “regime change” that is needed most in the world is not by war in Iraq, but by peaceful means in the United States. This regime change, by means of the ballot, would bring far more security to the American people and the people of the world than toppling Saddam.
The American people are challenged as never before to bring an end to terrorism by supporting policies fulfilling the promises of democracy and dignity for all in our troubled world. This will require not only regime changes, but also sea changes in our thinking and actions. It must begin with ordinary citizens having the courage to speak out clearly, forcefully and repeatedly about the dangerous militaristic and authoritarian direction that our country is taking under the Bush administration.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.