Fourteen years later, the horrors of 9/11 continue with deadly ripple effects. American militarism has become the dominant position of U.S. foreign policy, while other options remain banished to the sidelines. Yet from the outset of the “war on terrorism,” some Americans spoke out against a militarized response to the terrible events on Sept. 11, 2001.
Conventional wisdom presents the “war on terrorism” — proclaimed by President George W. Bush and maintained under President Barack Obama — as the only practical response to 9/11. Fighting terrorism has been the main rationale for all U.S. military interventions since then, spinning the Pentagon’s machinery into overdrive despite the absence of clearly identified foes or geographical boundaries.
Even the most prominent warnings against such an approach were marginalized and vilified in the wake of Sept. 11. And those warnings have been buried by the U.S. media as though they never occurred, even though their concerns have proved prescient. The U.S. has spent trillions of dollars on military interventions across the Middle East, and yet the region is more violent and turbulent than ever.
This media amnesia helps keep the U.S. war train on track. The importance of the erasure is embodied in an observation by George Orwell, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” The widespread pretense that there was no credible critique of going to war 14 years ago reinforces the assumption that there is no credible alternative to militarized responses today.
Ignored, derided or slandered at the time, Americans from many walks of life publicly warned against doing what the U.S. government proceeded to do with military action. Their voices have been written out of America’s dominant narrative. Ignoring those voices has proved catastrophic, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya and Yemen.
“I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said just three days after 9/11, standing alone against the rest of the House of Representatives as it voted 420 to 1 for a never-ending authorization for the use of military force. With a singular act of political courage, she told her colleagues and the nation that “some of us must urge the use of restraint.”
“I do not want to see this spiral out of control,” Lee said. “Far too many innocent people have already died. Our country is in mourning. If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that women, children and other noncombatants will be caught in the crossfire … Finally, we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.”
But the U.S. armed forces swung into action without any such strategy or target. The political and media elites in the nation’s capital applauded when Bush began the bombing of Afghanistan in early October 2001. “The launching of military strikes against peasants does nothing to suppress terrorism and only erodes American credibility in Muslim nations around the world,” wrote Manning Marable, a leading African-American historian and political scientist.
Some people who lost loved ones on 9/11 quickly found one another and formed a group called September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Their keynote theme was “Our grief is not a cry for war.”
North Carolina resident David Potorti, who lost a brother in the attack on the World Trade Center, was quick to speak out. He wrote, “President Bush’s guarantee of ‘a long, long struggle,’ absent a measurable goal, and without a quantifiable conclusion, suggests that America will be in a permanent militarized state until the end of our days, forever erasing the distinction between ‘war time’ and ‘peace time.’”
Potorti pointed out, “With no nations from which to demand surrender, there will be no surrender ceremonies. In the absence of negotiations, there will be no realignments, treaties or agreements … The waging of war will become a regularly occurring municipal function, like trash collection or street cleaning — all the while draining money out of our schools and hospitals, food out of our children’s mouths, and peace and beauty out of the rest of our lives.”
In autumn 2002, early into the country’s second post-9/11 year, retired U.S. Army Gen. and former National Security Agency Director William Odom appeared on a C-SPAN program and debunked the basic idea of waging war against terrorism.
“Terrorism is not an enemy,” he said. “It cannot be defeated. It’s a tactic. It’s about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks and expect we’re going to win that war. We’re not going to win the war on terrorism.”
These days, official Washington is no closer to acknowledging the truth of Odom’s statement. Policymakers continue to drive the war train with single-minded zeal.
From mid-September 2001 onward — while U.S. media echo chambers kept reverberating with rationales for endless war — even a renowned American writer would get scant amplification if challenging the core of “war on terrorism” orthodoxy. So there was little media interest in Joan Didion’s assessment of what developed during the first year after 9/11 — “an entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance.”
Anyone who raised objections to constant warfare as the imperative response to 9/11 was likely to be trashed as, at best, a 21st century pointy-headed intellectual, if not someone with enmity toward the United States.
At the end of 2002, in an essay for The New York Review of Books that turned into a book, “Fixed Ideas: America Since 9/11,” Didion wrote, “We had seen, most importantly, the insistent use of Sept. 11 to justify the reconception of America’s correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war.” Dissenters from that role, she noted, were often being denounced by such epithets as “the Blame America Firsters” or “the Blame America First crowd.”
Is all that mere history? No, it is history that has never ended. Patterns set 14 years ago are imprinted on the present. With the United States now entering the 15th year of the “war on terrorism,” vital assessments from some of its strongest critics are no less relevant today. Many were explicit and prescient when they warned of horrific consequences. But as another anniversary passes and the autumn of 2015 begins, the war machinery grinds on while mainstream media outlets bury crucial history.