The 2001 Terrorist Attack on American Soil Wasn’t the Only “9/11”
On the morning of September 11, 2001, four commercial airliners were hijacked by 19 members of the militant Islamist organization al-Qaeda. One plane was deliberately flown into the north tower of the World Trader Center complex in Manhattan, closely followed by another crashing into the south tower. About 30 minutes later a third plane collided into the western wall of The Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia, and the forth crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board. This horrific coordinated attack resulted in a loss of nearly 3,000 lives, making it the deadliest act of terrorism in American history.
This seemingly surreal assault was monstrous and tragic beyond words, but unfortunately it wasn’t the first “9/11”. On September 11, 1973, a CIA-backed military coup ousted Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, paving the way for two decades of brutal dictatorship under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet. More than 3,000 people were murdered by Pinochet’s regime, and approximately 31,947 were tortured. At the time, Chile was part of a broad network of Latin American despots and death squads known as Operation Condor, which was assisted by a CIA base in Panama. This case is but one example of violent American hegemony that has contributed to global resentment and even blowback, such as the aforementioned terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
While working in the shipping department of a small independent book store in 2003, I stumbled upon two books that would forever change my outlook on geo-politics and American foreign policy. The first, small and pamphlet-thin, was titled simply 9-11, and was comprised of a series of interviews with the famous linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky. The second, a somewhat dense volume, was called Blowback, and was written by a University of California professor emeritus and former Cold Warrior — the late Chalmers Johnson.
In 9-11, Chomsky discusses terrorism as a global phenomenon, including the Western double-standard regarding the term, as well as other euphemistic language that is often used in the West to describe the use of military force (i.e. “humanitarian intervention”). By detailing an array of examples, including Kosovo, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Sudan, Chomsky observes that, based on its own definition of the word, the US is actually a global leader in terrorism. (He then expounds upon the vitriol such observations often generate.) The immediate death, destruction, trauma, and misery caused by terrorism is abhorrent, but in addition, this violence can perpetuate itself, often lasting generations. Regarding the 9/11 attacks and the origins of al-Qaeda, Chomsky explains:
“The CIA did have a role, a major one in fact, but that was in the 1980s, when it joined Pakistani intelligence and others (Saudi Arabia, Britain, etc.) in recruiting, training, and arming the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists it could find to fight a ‘Holy War’ against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan.”
The term “blowback” was coined by the CIA to describe the unintended consequences of covert actions undertaken by the US military and intelligence agencies. The word was first used during internal speculation after the agency helped overthrow the Iranian government in 1953 (which I summarized in a previous post). In his groundbreaking exposé of said phenomenon, Chalmers Johnson vividly chronicles the far-reaching tentacles of the post-war American empire — focusing primarily on Asia — and explains how this multi-faceted hegemony causes profound resentment and hatred throughout the world, sometimes even leading to instances of blowback. These have included the bombings of US embassies in Africa, a Pan Am flight above Lockerbie, Scottland, and an apartment building in Saudi Arabia that housed US soldiers. It also includes organizations and foreign leaders whom we once armed and supported turning against us for various reasons, as was the case with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. And the roughly 700 US military bases in 130 different countries only seem to fan these flames.
A post-9/11 manifestation of blowback was the formation of the gruesome terrorist organization known as ISIS, which was only possible thanks to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Though the actions of ISIS are shockingly savage, this outcome wasn’t shocking at all; it was entirely predicable, based on the military’s own research. In 2004, then sectretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld requested a report from the Defense Science Board Task Force regarding the efficacy of American policy in the Middle East. Among the task force’s conclusions were the following:
“American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the US to single-digits in some Arab societies… In the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering… Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.”
This unsavory yet sober analysis of our problematic role in these conflicts is often omitted from mainstream discourse because it is profoundly embarrassing to many of our prominent institutions and public officials. Acknowledging our own role in perpetuating violence calls into question the notion of our moral benevolence. President George W. Bush’s explanation of the events of September 11, 2001 (which occurred on his watch) revolved around the phrase “they hate our freedoms.” Contrast this with the words of the actual perpetrator, Osama bin Laden, who outlined his motives in a detailed “letter to America”. Though the letter is laced with Wahhabi rhetoric, it also elucidates bin Laden’s political grievances, including a verification of this notion of “blowback.” Bin Laden’s objections to US policy included their support for the Israeli military occupation of Palestine (including the killing of civilians and destruction of homes), the sanctions against Iraq (resulting in at least half a million civilian deaths), US military bases throughout the Middle East (including in Saudi Arabia), US military actions in Somalia, and support for countries (such as Russia and India) that have killed and oppressed Muslims throughout the world. This al-Qaeda kingpin may have been a crazed mass-murderer, but his explanation certainly holds more water than Bush’s glib retort.
The devestation caused by the September 11th attacks inspired a beautiful outpouring of support and solidarity among people from all backgrounds coming together to assist and comfort one another. However, the aftermath of this atrocity also unfortunately unleashed a widespread and fervent nationalism, ethnic and religious profiling, violations of constitutional rights, and a vicious imperialistic response. The 9/11 slogan became “Never Forget.” As a nation, we certainly won’t forget such a large-scale catastrophe, but in a sense, we also “Never Remember.” Instead of starting the timeline only when an event affects us directly, we should analyze the historical context of such events, and have the courage to look in the mirror and see clearly our decades of relentless global violence, both covert and overt. We should then also accept responsibility for the profound sorrow, resentment, and blowback these policies have caused.
The Vietnam War may help put this in perspective: American military aggression in southeast Asia in the 1960s and ’70s resulted in the equivalent of approximately 1,000 9/11s, based on the respective deathtolls. On this dark anniversary, let’s honor the victims of September 11, 2001 by overcoming our tribalistic tendencies and remembering the victims of our own terrorism as well. If we change our ways, we can address the root causes of these conflicts, and prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future. Let’s acknowledge our history and work to end this cycle of violence.