Monday, September 12, 2011

September 11th and the Question We Won't Ask

It's been ten long years since the horrific events of September 11, 2001.  Much has happened since that day:  two majors wars have begun and are still being fought.  Osama Bin Laden has been pursued and eliminated, the lives of those lost have been remembered and celebrated.  We have endured heightened security measures in airports, gratuitous replays on our televisions, and even some crazy conspiracy theories.   But there is one thing I think that is missing any time we remember that day.  It is the question of "Why?"

Why did those terrorists commit those terrible acts?  What drove these men to such desperation and such hatred to feel they had no other choice but to take their own lives along with the lives of thousands of innocent civilians?  What was their motivation?  I don't think these are unreasonable questions.  Establishing a motive is a major component of criminal investigations.  We don't ask why thugs and monsters do what they do in order to justify their actions or provide them with mitigating circumstances, but we do it in a hope to prevent similar events in the future, remove incentives towards violence and to protect those we love.

When we finally get around to the question of what motivates people to attack us, we are usually told it is simply because we are rich and free.  That may be part of it, but I think the answer is much more complex.  I wish to cite a few words from a Muslim writer who has lived in both America and Pakistan, giving him what I think is a unique perspective (the whole article is worth the read, here's the link).  While conceding that part of the hatred directed toward us is jealousy of our relative wealth and liberty, the author states there is much more to it than that: 
"But there is another major reason for anti-Americanism: the accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies. These policies are unknown to most Americans. They form only minor footnotes in U.S. history. But they are the chapter titles of the histories of other countries, where they have had enormous consequences. America's strength has made it a sort of Gulliver in world affairs: By wiggling its toes it can, often inadvertently, break the arm of a Lilliputian."
So what were the footnotes of our history that could have possibly led to September 11th?  Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda stated three main grievances as motivation in their plot.  Those three things were U.N. sanctions against Iraq, our military presence in Saudi Arabia, and U.S. support for Israel.

In 1996, Madeline Albright, who was then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., was asked about the purported death of half a million Iraqi children under tough sanctions.  She stated that while a very hard choice, "we think the price is worth it."  She later apologized for the remark but it is not so difficult to see how such a  policy or attitude could lead to outrage.  Is there any political end that we would consider "worth it" if it required the death of 500,000 American children?

The U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War was another irritant.  Many Muslims felt the over 5,000 foreign troops were much too close to some of Islam's holiest sites.  It's important to remember that 15 of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia.  Could the U.S. presence in their homeland so close to sacred sites have been their main motivation?  We may never know for sure.

We cannot bring back those lost on that terrible day.  We can only change our present actions in order to prevent tragedy in the future.  Are we doing anything now that is short of the great and noble ideals of the United States?  Anything that may stoke fires of hatred toward us?  If we want to honor the memory of those who died on 9/11, we could begin by being willing to ask some uncomfortable questions.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. As always I agree. We need to find something to disagree about...