Sunday, September 11, 2011

Decade race to the bottom

On September 11, 2001 I was teaching an 8 a.m. class at Pacific University, just for that semester for a colleague on sabbatical, which meant that, since I teach on the West Coast of the US, the attacks of terrorists had already happened but news was confused and incredible. Students burst in before class and told me to turn on the TV. I said, well, it's rigged to a video cassette player and has no actual TV reception.

During the next two hour class session the Dean stopped by twice to update everyone and students challenged me to tell them what a nonviolent response might be, since I was teaching an intro course in Peace Studies and had told them that nonviolence was the starting point in our field. I told them that I would have to think more about it, but that two things struck me right away. One, a massive humanitarian aid response to the poorest peoples on Earth would be better than a military response, since we would need to show that our strength was meant to help, not hurt, others. Two, I told them, better watch out for your civil liberties because they are now under threat.

After that I went on the hunt for information and guidance, received a mix of both from the activist community and the academic community alike, and produced the first book that went to that theme, titled Nonviolent response to terrorism. I've since produced chapters for other, more scholarly and more complete volumes on that general topic. Upon reflection, I stand by everything I wrote those years ago and, in fact, I now believe the course taken by the US government has been so disastrous it would be hard to imagine a more dysfunctional response. It took George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Colin Powell and that set of GWOT arch-criminal architects to make me look smarter than I really am.

The United States was attacked on 9.11.01 and the Taliban offered to negotiate about bin Laden, which George Bush refused to do. If he had just been a calm and statesmanlike leader, the US would have been so much better served. We came out of the Clinton era in outstanding financial shape, into an era of national prosperity. The global war on terror was a choice, not something forced upon us, as the neocons claimed and pretty much everyone seems to accept as received wisdom now, though up to that point terrorism to the US had been a matter of law enforcement for the most part, certainly not a boots-on-the-ground military response.

It has been a decade of the most adversarial, retributive, bloody, costly response to a heinous crime, and the lives lost now dwarf the number taken by the outlaw al Qa'ida criminals on 9.11.01. It cost the terrorists 19 lives and less than $5,000 (they claim, though the figure had to be much higher). The response has cost the US literally about six orders of magnitude more in dollars we don't have (financed by a great deal of China's purchase of US Treasury bills, ironically) and has cost Afghanistan and Iraq enormously.

What a poor response. I am not a brilliant thinker, but it doesn't take one to come up with a far better response to the criminals of al Qa'ida. If we continue without learning basic lessons from a decade of this rotten road, what does that say about our hopes for the future of the US? More people are recognizing this dysfunction and beginning to think more creatively about it. After so much destruction, I am hopeful that, indeed, the response is finally creative.

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