Paul Epstein: What have we learned since Sept. 11, 2001?

By By Paul Epstein

I recently visited “Ground Zero,” now the site of the 9-11 Memorial and Museum. In December 2001, I made my way to the smoking remains of the twin towers. I smelled the acrid air; I saw the fences around St. Paul’s Chapel covered with photos, flowers, missing persons signs — the jutting remains of the iron skeleton like a massive tombstone.

I felt anger, sadness and confusion about the vulnerability our way of life allowed. I also tussled with the question so many asked, “Why do they (so many in the Muslim world) hate us?” knowing that it was wrapped up in our support of Israel (a country I support while not agreeing with all its policies), our support of Arab dictators, and our way of life, so enticing and yet so evil in the eyes of all religious fundamentalists — not just Muslim. How would we balance freedom and security?

I supported our attack on Afghanistan, as did many allies who sent troops and resources. After all, the Taliban government supported and protected our attacker, al-Qaida, which threatened many nations. I did not imagine we would spend more than a decade fighting there. When the Bush administration geared up for war in Iraq, I was highly suspicious of the motives and veracity of their claims. Saddam Hussein was a vicious tyrant, but should we preemptively remove every dictator who might pose a threat to us?

Coming up out of the subway 13 years later, our troops are still in Afghanistan, the possibility exists that when they leave, the Taliban or a dictator will return to power there. And with President Obama announcing a new campaign against ISIS, a vicious extremist group now establishing a terrorist stronghold straddling Iraq and Syria, I asked myself what we have learned.

We’ve learned we shouldn’t invade every country with terrorists or leaders who may pose a threat. “You break it, you bought it,” General Colin Powell warned before we went into Iraq. Our ability to win hearts and minds after bombing a country is limited as is our ability to solve centuries old tribal and sectarian grievances.

President Obama tells us we can and must fight terrorist networks that threaten us wherever they are in the world. But it remains to be seen what we’ve learned about unintended consequences. Ronald Reagan helped strengthen al-Qaida by supporting the Afghani “freedom fighters” who drove out the Soviet Union. We supported and armed Sadaam Hussein in his wars against Iran. The elected leader of Iraq, Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, sowed the seeds of ISIS success by marginalizing and discriminating against Iraq’s Sunnis.

Americans want their president to be tough and strong in response to threats. Everyone recognized ISIS was dangerous, but it took the beheading of two American journalists to make them enemies for most Americans. Fighting them in Syria is likely to help the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. We may end up with “boots on the ground,” and some think we should send troops now.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, I, and most Americans, knew little about the politics and sectarian differences among people of the Middle East, beyond the issues surrounding Israel. And not knowing much, many of us believed the fantasies the Bush administration spun that establishing democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan would be as simple as holding elections. And when the Arab Spring began, we imagined that democracies would flower when dictators were forced aside through mass demonstrations.

Too many of us yearn for the simplicity of the black and white world Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush painted. We don’t like the honesty of shades of gray that Obama describes. But in the long run, acknowledging shades of gray may save us red (blood) and green (treasure).

The Memorial on the plaza above the 9/11 museum is a peaceful shrine, the names of the dead engraved in marble banisters surrounding waterfalls endlessly pouring into the deep holes of footprints of the twin towers. The museum is a testimonial and a history, a reminder for those of us who lived through this time, a chance for those who didn’t to get a sense of what happened that day and in the days following. For some it may prove too difficult to relive those times, but having visited, I am reminded that war is traumatic in a way that newspapers and television can’t convey. We experienced an act of war on our soil that killed almost 3,000 innocent people, setting us on a path to actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and now Syria. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have been killed or wounded at the hands of our military and of those fighting us or each other. The fact that we try not to kill innocents does not seem to count for much. Beautiful memorials and expensive museums will probably not be built for them. But the memories of our role will not be easily forgotten for those living through it.

Paul Epstein is a retired teacher, musician, and writer living in Charleston. He blogs at

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