all remember where we were and what we felt on the morning of Sept.
11, 2001. I also have a clear recollection of the morning of Sept.
I got to my office early, and the red
message light on my phone was already blinking. My voice-mailbox was
full of angry condemnations of an
essay that had run in the Houston Chronicle that
morning, in which I sharply criticized past U.S. policy and warned
that a vengeful response to the terrorist attacks would be disastrous.
I wasn’t surprised that most of the messages were hostile, though I
couldn’t have predicted the intensity -- or the volume. I put the
phone down and saw the light blinking again; while I had been
listening to the first round, others were calling to leave more
messages. And so it went throughout the day, and for weeks to come, as
people lashed out at those of us who rejected the cry for war.
Five years later, I’m still standing -- and still teaching at the
University of Texas, despite the desire many of those callers
expressed to see my employment terminated -- with no damage to body or
If only we could say that about the world.
So, on this anniversary week it’s important to mark not one, but two
great tragedies. The first, of course, is the 9/11 attacks that killed
nearly 3,000 innocent people. Memorial services around the country
this week marked our common sense of loss.
Unfortunately, there won’t be official memorial services for the
second tragedy that followed -- the commencement of the so-called “war
on terror.” That misguided policy has taken far more innocent lives --
now into the hundreds of thousands, in Afghanistan and Iraq -- without
making the U.S. public any safer. But there’s an even deeper tragedy
-- not in what has happened because of this illegal and immoral
policy, but in what didn’t happen.
9/11 offered a dramatic moment in which the most powerful country on
the planet could have led the world on a new course. U.S. leaders had
a choice to either (1) manipulate people’s legitimate fears and
understandable desire for vengeance to justify wars of control and
domination, or (2) help create a world in desperate need of more
justice, not more war.
To choose the latter would have taken visionary leadership; a role for
which, sadly, virtually no one in the Republican or Democratic parties
appeared qualified, then or now. But there were such voices -- not
leaders but ordinary people, speaking out clearly and early. For
example, those who lost family but resisted the call for war formed
“September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows” and campaigned for
alternatives to war.
Anti-war activists immediately began developing the argument that war
would exacerbate the terrorist threat and that a two-track solution --
radically changing the unjust U.S. policies in the Middle East that
provide fertile ground for terrorists to recruit, while pursuing
vigorous law-enforcement efforts to track and capture terrorists --
would be not only moral and legal, but also effective. War, we
predicted, would not solve our problems.
Five years later, one thing is clear: The anti-war voices were right.
We saw what was coming, not because we were so smart but because it
was so obvious.
Since the end of World War II, U.S. policy in the Middle East and
Central Asia has been designed to ensure U.S. control over the
strategically crucial energy resources of that region. Democratic and
Republican administrations alike have used violence -- in covert
operations and open warfare, conducted by the United States and its
surrogates -- to dominate the region’s politics. Talk of noble U.S.
plans to build democracy are contradicted by actions on the ground.
Around the world people understand that this quest to control the flow
of oil and oil profits is at the heart of U.S. policy; only in this
country are people seduced by politicians’ fanciful rhetoric about
That’s why it’s a “so-called” war on terror. The invasions of
Afghanistan and Iraq used terrorism as a cover. Now even mainstream
commentators, who may not share my political analysis, are
acknowledging these wars haven’t reduced the threat.
Two top national-security reporters, Warren Strobel and Jonathan
Landay, surveyed the
opinions of counterterrorism experts and former government
officials and concluded: “In relying overwhelmingly on bombs and
bullets, [analysts] say, the United States has alienated much of the
Muslim world, driving away even moderates who might be open to Western
Political scientist Robert Pape, the leading researcher on suicide
terrorism, concluded that Al Qaeda’s strength -- 9/11 and that
“suicide terrorism results more from foreign occupation than Islamic
fundamentalism measured as “the ability of the group to kill us” -- is
greater today than before.”
The opportunity right after 9/11 to chart a new course -- one that
could have led to a stable peace rooted in a more just distribution of
wealth and power worldwide -- was lost. But that does not mean we are
forever condemned to repeat our mistakes.
I ended that 9/14 essay with a plea “that the insanity stop here.”
Five years later there is nothing to do but renew the plea:
It is time to end not just this current war in Iraq, but this insanity
-- here and now, while there is still time.
Robert Jensen is a journalism
professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the
Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of
The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and
Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity
(both from City Lights Books). He can be reached at