Confused Ten Years On

Has it really been ten years?

When it comes to remembering the horrific events of 9-11, I have to admit to a certain confusion.

I don’t understand people’s profound fear of subsequent terrorist attacks relative to other more serious threats to their health, longevity, and quality of life. One half of the U.S. population is expected to be obese by 2030 meaning heart disease and related health problems will explode. One in eight women will get breast cancer. And add Alzheimers, drunk driving, gun violence, and driving while texting to the list of everyday domestic threats to our health, longevity, and quality of life. As a road runner, road cyclist, and driver, I’m much more likely to die from someone in my community texting while driving than I from foreign terrorists.

Of course evil exists and we have to continue to be vigilant, but the “fear paradox” is probably explained by the scale of the 9-11 attacks, the surreal images of the damage permanently etched in our minds, and the fact that we’re more emotional than rational beings. Also, gun and traffic deaths are sporadic, happening in different locations at different times, each death like a drip from a leaky faucet, remaining unconnected and relatively inconsequential in our minds. In contrast, 9-11 was an unprecedented gusher of violence and death replayed on television over and over and over. But I don’t understand why we’re settling for thinking so sloppily.

I don’t understand people’s self-congratulatory “there haven’t been any attacks since” mindset. In terrorism score-keeping, only large-scale attacks on American citizens count? People forget how many foreign nationals were killed on 9-11 and ignore how many terrorist attacks have occurred throughout the world in the last ten years. I don’t understand how many of my fellow Christians in particular emphasize their nationality at the expense of their humanity.

I don’t understand what we’ve learned about the terrorist threat. Ten years on do we have any better understanding of why we were attacked? Or of our fellow citizens of Muslim faith?

I don’t understand why we’re content to let our government fill foreign skies with as many drones as they want. Are young men less likely to die for their religion today? A focus on preventing additional terrorist acts is of course necessary, but we shouldn’t lose focus on the other threats I’ve highlighted, and we shouldn’t pretend military might is a long-term fix.

On Sunday, besides watching football, consider pressing pause with me and reflecting in silence for a few minutes on not just the tragic events of 9/11/01 and the lives lost and the families shattered, but what we can do to create healthier, safer, and more secure neighborhoods, cities, states, provinces, countries, and world over the next ten years.

Osama bin Laden is Dead, Al Qaeda is Not

I just finished reading Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, considered by many the definitive “rise of Al Qaeda, 9/11 book”. It was an extremely ambitious project rooted in meticulous research.

Here’s what Patrick Beach said of Wright’s work: Even for Wright — a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine who’s long been regarded as a superhumanly tireless journalist — the book is a feat of terrific endurance. He has traveled for much of the past five years, conducted some 600 interviews, compiled a reference library of 150 or more books and inhaled tens of thousands of documents. The guy’s work ethic makes every other scribbler look like a punk. And every single fact, element or category — what Osama bin Laden has had to say about Saddam Hussein, for example — has been annotated and cross-referenced using Wright’s famously meticulous index card system.

The Looming Tower is brilliant on several levels, but maybe its greatest strength is Wright’s remarkable clarity. He always opts for the simplest form of expression, as a result, despite the foreignness of a lot of the content, I almost never had to re-read. Sometimes I chose to re-read a paragraph or two just to marvel at the incredible economy, simplicity, and accessibility of the narrative.

Almost always, whenever Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Central Asia, and/or the “War on Terrorism” comes up in conversation I’m amazed at two things: 1) how strong everyone’s opinions are how we should combat Al-Qaeda and 2) how little those same people know about Islam, Osama bin Laden, and Al Qaeda. As just one example, I would guess less than 10% of North Americans could correctly list the “five pillars of Islam“.

Since Al Qaeda hasn’t pulled off a 9/11-scale attack in the U.S. over the last nine plus years, and Osama bin Laden has been killed, the vast majority of U.S. citizens would say our post 9/11 response and current military commitments have been spot-on, but I’m not so sure the world is much more secure than in 2001 despite the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and our trillions of dollars of military spending.

Reading one excellent book doesn’t make me an expert, but here are some of the most relevant post-bin Laden things I learned from The Looming Tower: 1) Arab governments’ torturing and killing of Islamic fundamentalists repeatedly led to increased Islamic fundamentalism. 2) Islamic fundamentalism is an ideology; consequently, it rests far more on ideas than on one or a few charismatic leaders. Our military, by itself, even with its special forces and drones, cannot defeat the ideology. 3A) Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s top officials always hoped the 9/11 attacks would draw the U.S. into a protracted conflict in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have been successful in fomenting more violence. 3B) Osama bin Laden was not, and Al Qaeda’s top officials are not, afraid to die for their ideas. They embrace the idea of martyrdom. 4) Osama bin Laden’s death will no doubt damage Al Qaeda’s finances, but those losses could conceivably be offset by the organization’s ability to leverage his new status as a martyr to recruit new members. I disagree with the “experts” on television right now saying this is an Al Qaeda “deathblow”.

I am not even close to mourning bin Laden, but forgive me if I sit out the raucous public celebrations. It’s far too early to know whether this is a substantive turning point in creating a more peaceful, secure world for all the world’s people.