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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Life in the aftermath of 9/11

Published: September 16, 2011
Section: Opinions

Broken glass; shattered steel; collapsed towers; the passing of mothers, fathers, spouses, brothers, sisters and children—perhaps the most significant legacy of Sept. 11 was the devastating sense of loss that rippled throughout the nation.

Yet another lasting impact of that tragic day one decade ago was the birth of an intellectual and policy debate that continues to rage across the United States and the wider world to this day; a debate that focuses on the nature of radical Islam, the war on terror, American values and foreign policy.

As the dust at Ground Zero began to settle and September 2001 turned to October and November, U.S. citizens, from government officials to journalists to academics to average people, were asking themselves: “Why us?” What did we ever do to deserve such a ghastly fate? What can we do to ensure that such a heinous act never occurs again?

Reflecting on this period, it seems to me that two schools of thought emerged to answer these pressing questions: what I would term a confrontational school and a self-critical school.

According to advocates of a confrontational approach, Sept. 11 was unequivocally an act of evil and a declaration of war. It is useless and counterproductive to rationalize al-Qaida’s millenarian goal of global jihad in an effort to impose a worldwide Islamic caliphate governed by Shariah law. Instead, terrorism must be crushed and defeated, and the nihilistic ideology that fuels them must be sent to the dustbin of history. Furthermore, the environment that serves as a breeding ground for terrorism—an environment of atrophy, decay, corruption, economic impoverishment and political repression under the iron fist of dictatorship—must be irrevocably altered.

In contrast, the self-critical school took a completely different approach. Sept. 11, in their view, was the product of America’s foreign policy sins—its support for Israel, the sanctions against Iraq during the 1990s, and for regimes such as those found in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that robbed Arabs of their honor and dignity. The 19 jihadists on that fateful Tuesday morning were only reacting against perceived aggression, imperialism and oppression by the West. Therefore, the onus was on us, the supposedly arrogant United States, to assuage the Muslim world by apologizing for our past faults and reversing course on some of our policies in the Middle East. Invasion and occupation would be the wrong course of action to take and would only further antagonize the people to which we should instead be reaching out.

The endless controversies that ensued in the years following Sept. 11—Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, renditions, enhanced interrogation techniques, warrantless wiretapping, military tribunals, the Patriot Act—were in a sense clashes between these two worldviews. The confrontational school deemed the government must do whatever is necessary to protect American civilians and lives, that we were at war and that victory against Islamic extremists was our only plausible option. The self-critical school worried about offended Muslim sensibilities, and argued that we were only inflaming the clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, as well as reinforcing America’s negative image on the world stage.

And here we are, 10 years later, still dealing with the same issues and having the same sorts of debates. What then is the right course going forward? Which of the two approaches better depicts the reality the United States is faced with?

Ultimately, I find myself more in agreement, albeit not in perfect alignment, with the confrontational school. The truth, in my view, is that we cannot wish away or appease the radical beliefs that fuel terrorism and jihad. Even if the United States removed itself completely from Middle Eastern affairs, Islamists would not cease their unremitting hostility toward infidels and the perceived enemies of Islam, nor would the inter-Arab struggles that produce these extremists end. In fact, past U.S. withdrawals, such as in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia, have only emboldened the likes of al-Qaida and reinforced America’s image as, in Osama Bin Laden’s words, the “weak horse.”

Therefore, we should remain on the offensive in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Furthermore, we must be vigilant in ensuring that the balance of power in the Middle East does not fall sway to the Islamists—both Sunni and Shiite, including not just al-Qaida but the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and other groups—and Iran, especially given the recent uprisings and instability across the region.

Ideally, we could move beyond the legacy of 9/11 and the war on terror. Given the nature of the situation with which we are faced, however, this would not be the wisest course of action to take.