9/11 and perpetual war

Before Sept. 11, 2001, the United States mainland had never been attacked by any foreign power. The closest to this was the bombing of the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941 by fighter planes of the Japanese imperial navy. The attack led the United States directly into the Pacific and European theaters of World War II. America declared war on Japan the following day, putting to a close the domestic debate on the wisdom of openly opposing Japanese and German aggression. Three days later, for its support of Britain, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.

What is ironic about the 9/11 attacks is that they were launched not by a country but by a small group of individuals who, fired by religious zeal, have sworn to destroy America.  Their weapons were not the nuclear bombs that kept the world on edge during the Cold War, but hijacked passenger planes that were crashed against the symbols of American power.

For all the terror and the mayhem inflicted by the 9/11 attacks, no one seriously thought that the United States was in any real danger of being destroyed or subjugated in this manner. Osama bin Laden, the evil mind behind 9/11, intended these strikes to be mainly symbolic, even as they aimed to inflict maximum damage. His objective was to send a message that challenged American supremacy on the world stage, and to expose its vulnerability. He probably hoped that other groups would be so inspired by this well-executed portrait of large-scale violence that they would be emboldened to mount their own asymmetrical wars against America.

Some people who rabidly hate America did rejoice when television screens all over the world showed commandeered airplanes being slammed against the twin towers of the World Trade Center in downtown New York. But the global emotional tide quickly turned against the hijackers when it became known that thousands of innocent human beings of various races, religions and nationalities perished in this unspeakable carnage. Their deaths could not be dismissed as mere collateral damage in a war whose objectives were at best archaic, and at worst irrational. Thus, instead of awe, the 9/11 attacks elicited worldwide anger against terrorists who would cynically exploit the religious commitments of individuals in a perverse campaign against the United States.

Those weeks after 9/11, when people of all creeds and convictions came together in solemn prayer to grieve for those who died needlessly, and saluted the firefighters who selflessly entered the burning buildings to rescue those who were trapped inside – those were America’s shining moments. They showed a people who, drawing deeply from inner strength, could bear tragedy gracefully.

All this began to dim however when America’s leaders decided to go to war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. The action in Afghanistan, justified as a manhunt for Bin Laden and the al-Qaeda chieftains who were suspected to be hiding in that country, got the blessing of the United Nations Security Council. Many countries joined in this effort even after the manhunt for Bin Laden turned into a full-scale war against Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers. But, long after a new government favored by the United States had been installed, the whereabouts of Bin Laden and his gang remained unknown.

Soon, America opened another front in its “war against global terrorism.” Although it could not prove any link between al-Qaida and Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein, the United States invaded this oil-rich country on the pretext that it posed a danger to the world by keeping weapons of mass destruction. Unable to convince the UN Security Council, America turned to its allies to assemble a “Coalition of the Willing.” The Iraq invasion sparked a prolonged war that subdued Saddam’s army and drove him into hiding. He was later captured, tried and hanged. But no weapons of mass destruction were found because Iraq never had any. The collapse of Saddam’s regime activated all the fault lines that crosscut Iraqi society. Today, a new US-sponsored government is in place, but there is no peace in Iraq. American troops are still there, as they are in Afghanistan.

Some websites keep track of the casualties (www.icasualties.org/oif) and the costs (www. costofwar.com) of these wars. To date, these two wars, launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, have cost the American people more than $1 trillion –roughly the equivalent of what America owes China today. American soldiers killed in Iraq number 4,792. International occupation forces killed in Afghanistan are placed at 2,706.  Shocking as they are to American families who lost loved ones in these wars, these numbers pale in comparison to the 1.5 million Iraqis who have perished in a still unfinished war.

Financially drained and exhausted by military expeditions abroad and the economic crisis at home, the United States under President Obama deftly avoided funding another war in Libya this year. But its Nato allies have followed the American example of waging unprovoked wars against sovereign nations, on the pretext of protecting civilians and aiding democracy.

More than 200 years ago, the philosopher Immanuel Kant laid down six conditions for what he called “perpetual peace” among nations. Two of these could have been meant for America. One says: “No national debt shall be contracted in connection with the foreign affairs of the nation.” The other states: “No nation shall forcibly interfere with the constitution and government of another.”

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