Contemplating America’s Reaction to 9/11

Contemplating America’s Reaction to 9/11

by Rose Aslan

Here in the US, much of the rhetoric surrounding 9/11 is centered on never forgetting what happened on that tragic day. Thousands of articles, documentaries and programs have been circulating in the days leading up to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. We read and talk often about 9/11, but what are we getting from this discourse? Have we learned anything during these past ten years?

One thing that seems to be missing is the after effect of America’s reaction to 9/11 abroad. Many people have highlighted the backlash that has left American Muslims feeling left out in the cold and often the target of attacks by Islamaphobes who take their rage out on Americans who they suspect are Muslim. We can talk about how America has changed both its foreign and domestic policy for the worse as a result of the attacks. We can talk about our loss in civil liberties and the way we live in constant fear of another attack. We can talk about Usama Bin Laden and the long, tiring search for him that took nearly ten years. But what about taking into account what our country has done in retaliation against an invisible, elusive “terrorist” enemy.

Soon after 9/11, we invaded Afghanistan and began a barrage of attacks on alleged targets where Bin Laden and his cronies were hiding. Many civilians also were killed, injured, and displaced during America’s continuing war in Afghanistan. Fast-forward to March 2003, and we invade Iraq, fabricating claims that Saddam Hussein was storing weapons of mass destruction somewhere in the country. We ended up spurring a civil war based on ethnic and sectarian identity. As a result, more than a million Iraqis have lost their lives and millions others have been displaced inside their own country or have had to flee from their beloved homeland.

This is, of course, old news, and we hear about Afghanistan and Iraq so often that we have become desensitized to daily news reports of fresh explosions and shootings. On 9/11, we experienced a small taste of the violence and dread that Afghanis and Iraqis deal with on a daily basis. In the US, families of war veterans must deal with their family members who have been killed in battle. Among the lucky ones who return from the battlefront, many of them have are either physically handicapped or bear psychological scars that they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

Having spent five weeks in Iraq this last summer has given me a new perspective. I saw first hand the result our “war on terror” and how our reaction to 9/11 has changed the fabric of Iraqi society forever. Under Saddam Hussein’s iron fist, life was certainly not hunky dory for Iraqis, although there was some semblance of stability and safety. When I spoke to Iraqis and asked them if they were glad that America had invaded Iraq, about half of them would reminisce about the good old days of Saddam. They remembered a time of plenty, when the electricity ran 24 hours a day and women felt safe to walk on the street alone. The other half told me stories about both young and old men disappearing in the night, never to be seen or heard from again. Women living in Karbala told me stories of the city being under siege by Saddam’s army during the Shi’i Intifada of 1991. Nothing was off limits for Saddam, his men went so far as to attack people who took refuge inside the sacred shrine of Imam Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Nevertheless, after we were unable to find WMDs in Iraq, we changed our rhetoric and decided that we had to free the women and men of Iraq from their evil dictator. It didn’t hurt that Iraq is also home to one of the largest oil reserves in the world.

The country is in complete disarray: most people deal with constant power cuts and have to get their electricity through expensive private means, as the government’s supply is limited to a few hours a day. Families cannot drink tap water, which is contaminated as many water treatment plants have been destroyed since the American invasion. In some places, the air is full of depleted uranium, severely effecting people’s health. The white phosphorus chemicals used by the US military against Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah has left a devastating effect on its inhabitants. There, mothers often give birth to children with deformities at a rate 13 times the rate found in Europe and doctors have begun to counsel women not to conceive at all. Hospitals are ill equipped to deal with any serious illness and children die from even simple sicknesses.

The Iraqi economy has suffered dramatically: Farmers have abandoned their fields for more lucrative jobs, which means that most fruits, vegetables, and other food products are imported into the country. Industry has gone down the drain and it is nearly impossible to find anything made in Iraq. Streets that were paved 20 years ago under Saddam’s regime have not been maintained and have crumbled into dusty, trash-strewn roads. Security checkpoints line the highways and city streets throughout the country and Iraqis are often unable to trust each other, especially across sectarian and ethnic lines.

It seems that we are unable to humanize the Iraqi and Afghani men, women and children, whom we will never meet. They live far away in unpronounceable towns and cities, places we will never visit. Although many innocent souls are killed each year as a result of our retaliation against the perpetrators of 9/11, seldom do we stop and contemplate their humanity.

God reminds us in the Qur’an that “Anyone who kills a person…then it is as if he has killed all the people! And whoever spares a life, then it is as if he has given life to all the people” (Qur’an 5:32). Each American life is valuable and we should mourn the deaths of those who lost their lives on 9/11. At the same time, each Iraqi and Afghani life holds the same exact value, and we need to heal the wounds we have caused in countries around the world and create a positive perception of our country through our actions and not just empty promises. Instead of sending more soldiers, we need to rebuild the infrastructures of the countries we have invaded and then leave them to elect their own leaders to govern their countries. These kinds of acts will put our country on the road to redemption and help us heal from the damage caused by 9/11.

The only way we can go forward and start this new decade post-9/11 is to realize our mistakes and reconsider how we interact with other nations on the world stage. We must live up to our American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and recognize that every person in the world deserves to enjoy these rights.


Originally published at State of Formation which is a forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. Founded by the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, it is run in partnership with Hebrew College and Andover Newton and in collaboration with the Parliament of the World’s Religions