We were all stunned and horrified by the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11/01 that replayed on our TVs over and over again. Intuitively we knew the event was somehow epochal and our world forever changed. Now twenty years later we are trying to put it all in historical and perhaps personal context. Here’s my take.
My personal journey through it all began with the hope that the world’s response to the event would somehow unite us out of the horror of it all, with empathy for those killed, and a with a commitment to try to understand and address the motivation of those who carried out the event. But, alas, what followed was rather a frenetic, misdirected, manipulated effort to seek revenge and to punish anyone suspected of initiating the bombing. And not only the U.S. but the rest of the world was swept up in the “forever wars” that have followed.
These wars have compounded the tragedy of 9/11. The sickening “made for TV,” "shock and awe" bombing of Iraq, with the destruction of so much life, property, and culture there, led painfully these too many years later to the humbling withdrawal from Afghanistan and a reckoning with all the calamitous billions of dollars and resources wasted and soldier and civilian lives lost.
The only consolation for me from this tragedy is that it is so clear military might, wars if you will, have become futile in the effort to offer hope and reconciliation to a profoundly unjust, divided and violent world. As a committed adherent to nonviolence I am utterly convinced nonviolence is a “force more powerful” in defending peoples’ lives and rights from oppressive government rather than war. We cannot bear morally to continue to kill and ravage innocent civilians, the major victims of war, and send millions into the ever-expanding numbers of people living in asylum and refugee camps. We must find alternates to war through diplomacy and meeting the basic needs of the citizens of beleaguered countries, especially those who suffer so much poverty and deprivation, in a spirit of good will and respect for their humanity. I only pray the world is willing and able to heed that difficult but ultimately promising and hopeful news.
Although for most of us imagining alternatives to war is unlikely to be a priority right now given the other pressing issues impacting our lives. But the 9/11 commemoration and recollections on the ensuring years of war provide an opportunity to pause and reflect on the cost and the futility of war. We can be reminded that more than fifty percent of our federal discretionary budget is assigned to preparing, fighting and paying the debts of our wars (and the current proposed defense budget will raise the amount another $24 billion) as we also are reminded that those dollars could be better spent for domestic and international needs. But the real tragedy of it all is not even war's physical destructiveness and unimaginable waste of precious lives and resources; the real cost of war is that, despite efforts to speak of valor and heroism, war is ultimately most deeply destructive of the human spirit. It is humanity's tragic failure to creatively and courageously seek justice and peace and mutual support rather than domination and control. In short, war is the opposite of love.
War, military might and repeated violence are not the answer to inevitable conflict. The practice of diplomacy, nonviolence, mutual respect and support, and adherence to just laws are the alternative - practices sadly missing from the post-9/11 experience. The abolition of war is not a pipe dream; it is a necessity if humanity is to survive, and nonviolence offers a tenable alternative. Current research, in fact, establishes a clear efficacy of nonviolence over violence in confronting oppressive governments.* As MLK, Jr. taught, love (nonviolence) is ultimately the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. So whether or not we are anti-war activists, each of us has the opportunity and responsibility in our daily lives to practice the spirit of nonviolence and love that takes away the need for violence and war. So be it!
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* See Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, 2011 and Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know by Erica Chenoweth, 2021.