Hard Questions about the Response to Terrorism: Looking Back on September 11th

Posted on September 14, 2021 By

by John Whitehead

Simply Asking Questions

Andrew Young, the civil rights activist, politician, and diplomat, was present in Selma, Alabama, during the “Bloody Sunday” violence of March 7, 1965. When hundreds of Black Americans and others tried to march for voting rights only to be beaten and tear-gassed by Alabama state troopers, Young helped the wounded and others retreating from the violence. He also faced the challenge of talking down people who wanted to respond with violence of their own.

As Young recalled,

[T]here were people who…started talking about going to get their guns. You had to talk them down…and you had to talk them down by simply asking questions,

“What kind of gun you got, .32, .38? You know, how’s that going to hold up against the automatic rifles and the 12-gauge… you know 10-gauge shotguns that they’ve got? And how many have you got? There are at least 200 shotguns out there with buckshot in them. You ever see buckshot? You ever see what buckshot does to a deer?” You know, and most of them had. And you make people think about the specifics of violence, and then they realize how suicidal and nonsensical it is…

I mean there were, in other situations, when people would really get bad, and we couldn’t turn them…we couldn’t physically restrain them, [and] we’d say, “All right, go ahead. Help yourself. Go ahead and… who are you going to kill first, you know? And what’s going to happen when you kill that one?” See? “Where are you going to go after you’ve killed two or three white folk?” See. “You got an escape plan?” Say, “Where are you going to hide? Where are you going to get money to live? Are you ready to take on an underground terrorism movement?” And you know, once they realized they hadn’t thought about even violence…and that what they were really doing was a kind of macho foolishness…they’d calm down.

But you… you see, we were convinced that violence was weakness, that violence wasn’t strength, and that violence was the surest way to get a whole lot of people killed.

I have repeatedly thought about Young’s story when I reflect on another infamous act of violence, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Specific, Practical Questions

Like most Americans, I watched with horror as the hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I remember being very afraid, in the days that followed, about future terrorist attacks. I remember being very angry about the pre-meditated murder of 2,977 people. I also remember being uncertain about how best to respond to the attacks.

I wasn’t then (and still am not now) a pacifist, but I also wasn’t sure if the US invasion of Afghanistan that followed 9/11 was a good or just response to the attacks. I vacillated for months in my views. Then, I eventually settled on a generally supportive attitude toward the hawkish policies that the Bush administration pursued—which, I deeply regret to say, included support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many years would pass before I came to take a far more skeptical, nonviolence-minded view of American wars and military policies.

Looking back, some 20 years after 9/11, I ask myself what would have convinced me back then to take a different course. What would have persuaded me that war and a generally violent response to terrorism wasn’t wise? And I think of Young’s story.

I appreciate how Young and his colleagues asked specific, practical questions. Asking such questions about the response to 9/11 might have made a difference:

Will denying al Qaeda terrorists a base in Afghanistan really be that big an obstacle to their committing more terrorist attacks? Couldn’t al Qaeda establish new bases in other sympathetic or unstable communities—such as areas of neighboring Pakistan? What kind of longer-term responsibility in Afghanistan is the United States taking on by invading? What might the costs of such a responsibility be? If the policy is to stop further attacks by killing al Qaeda terrorists, does that mean also killing them in countries other than Afghanistan? What are the implications of such a wide-ranging license to kill? How confident can we be that those targeted in this way are really guilty of terrorism? These and similar questions were ones that deserved serious thought back in 2001.

Twenty years later, the price of the US response to 9/11 has been enormous. To highlight just a few costs, over 7,000 US military personnel and civilian Defense Department employees have been killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as related military operations.

Estimates of others killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars include over 1,000 allied military personnel; over 7,000 US contractors; and perhaps over 100,000 security personnel, over 200,000 civilians, and over 80,000 opposition fighters in the nations where these wars have been fought (these imprecise estimates might well understate the numbers of dead). Not all these people were directly killed by US forces, but US policy created the context in which they died.

Outside these war zones, the US policy of targeted killing, by drones and other methods, has killed perhaps 5,000 people.

What has all this loss of life achieved? Granted, no terrorist attacks on a scale comparable to 9/11 have occurred on American soil since 2001. Yet terrorist attacks and plots by people allied with al Qaeda or ISIS, or who have similar ideologies, have still occurred in the United States. Examples include the 2009 plots to bomb New York’s subway system and a Northwest airlines flight, the 2010 attempt to bomb Times square, the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, and the 2016 Orlando massacre. Almost 100 people have died from such attacks and that number could easily have been higher except for pure luck: the bombs on the Northwest flight and in Times Square failed to work properly.

The United States’ costly wars and counter-terrorism policies failed to prevent such attacks or near-attacks. In fact, these policies might have contributed to them: for example, the would-be subway bomber Najibullah Zazi, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and Orlando killer Omar Mateen all cited US-sponsored violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere as justifications for their acts. Such a record is not very reassuring, especially given how much the anti-terrorism policies have cost Americans and many others.

Looking back, I cannot help but think that a more restrained, less militarized response to 9/11 would have been better. Such a response might have emphasized measures such as seeking to track down, arrest, and legally try individual terrorists; improving transportation security; and securing dangerous materials that could be used to make chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, so they couldn’t end up in terrorists’ hands. Such a response may have been equally if not more successful in preventing further attacks and have left far fewer people dead.

I wish I had thought harder about the practical questions of how to stop terrorism. I wish someone had pressed these types of questions on me as Young and others pressed questions on their colleagues in Selma.

Twenty years later, the anniversary of 9/11 is a time to mourn: to mourn all those killed in the September 11th attacks and the many people killed because of the responses to those attacks. The anniversary is also a time to resolve in the future to ask the hard, practical questions about responding to terrorism.

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For more commentary by John Whitehead on historical events, see:

Finding Common Ground on and Learning from World War II 

The Wages of War, Part 1: How Abortion Came to Japan

Wages of War, Part 2: How Forced Sterilization Came to Japan 

“Remember Pearl Harbor—Keep ‘Em Dying”: War and Racism in the Pacific

East Germany’s Peaceful Revolution: Remembering the Berlin Wall’s Fall

The Danger That Faces Us All: Hiroshima and Nagasaki after 75 Years

“The Affairs of a Handful of Natives”: Nuclear Testing and Racism

Lethal from the Start: Uranium Mining’s Danger to the Most Vulnerable

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