It was a quiet, sunny morning and I was seated alone in front of the big picture window overlooking the big, blue waters of Lake Michigan. The trees were in full color and the air was warmish except for a slight windy bite that wafted the scent of pine trees and woodsy wetness into my "lookout." A perfect fall day, the kind I anticipate and cherish for all its beauty and solace.
Suddenly, my husband informed me that Bush had begun the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The "war on terrorism" was on and our first stop was Afghanistan. I instantly felt sickened and dismayed. It was a month and a half since 9/11, whose meaning was not entirely clear, but whose portent was already viciously ominous. Even at that time it seemed that this new era wasn't so much about war as it was about our place in the world as the only remaining superpower. For years I had closed my eyes and ears to news about the Middle East. It was a place of irresolvable conflict and discord in a never-ending struggle between Palestinians and Israelis over land. Nevertheless, as writer Bruce Feiler observed, 9/11 made the issues of that region OUR issues and we would have to face them. The question is: have we?
When Bush said we were "at war" it puzzled me. Nineteen young men, presumably led by Osama Bin Laden, had attacked the United States by hijacking our own jetliners and killing themselves and 3,000 Americans. Most of the terrorists were Saudis yet we were attacking Afghanistan in order to get Osama, a Saudi, too, who lived in a cave there. I remember seeing the news clips of Osama, a guy in a long, gray beard with body-length robes and a turban who was overseeing a tough regimen of physical exercise for young, agile men dressed in black. He was also shown squatting and laughing as he shot off an assault rifle.
Another puzzling thing about this new post-9/11 era was that it started out as a war of individuals: Bush vs. bin Laden then Bush vs. Saddam Hussein. Then it became a war against a faceless, nation-less enemy called Al Qeada. The war's mission kept changing: we were to stop Saddam because he had weapons of mass destruction; we were to bring democracy to Iraq; we were to provide stability in the region. Curiously, Saddam would be captured and hung but the war in Iraq would continue, going on five years now. Then it became a war between our troops and the insurgents, but mostly civilians were killed-you know, the same people we were there to save from Saddam. Those civilians who could, fled their homes, which has amounted to about five million displaced Iraqis, according to Nir Rosen, an independent journalist and the author of In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq.
After 9/11 Bush was pretty quick to call himself a "war president" and he would dominate the news every day in a kind of personal quest to convince Americans that we were out to defeat the terrorists and make the world safe for Americans. Even more disturbing, Bush framed his war in religious terms as a "crusade against the evil-doers."
Actually, this new war in this new era was justified with the same old excuses: retaliation justice. Bush had invoked lex talionis, the ancient code first articulated by the Babylonian King Hammurabi (ca. 1792-1750 B.C.E.) who lived, ironically, in what is now modern-day Iraq. His revolutionary code, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," meant that it was morally OK to hit your enemy if he hit you. However, the problem in this new post-9/11 era was determining who and where the enemy was.
Lex talionis also appears in the Old Testament where God is portrayed as a vengeful and jealous god who goes after his people when they do him wrong. Meanwhile, in the New Testament Jesus declares that God is a loving father who forgives in order to make a way for justice and peace. As a reputedly religious nation with a self-professed evangelical Christian president, this new 9/11 era found us ironically forgetting about Jesus and charging down the ancient path of lex talionis.
By going after bin Laden America was presumably invoking justice for the September 11 attacks. But justice is tricky. After we retaliated against the terrorists, the terrorists retaliated against us. Then we against them and they against us over and over and over again. Unfortunately, going to war with Afghanistan and later with Iraq didn't make us feel any safer. It didn't heal the hurt or diminish our fears of terrorism that resulted from 9/11. And it didn't put us on a higher ground than the terrorists who did that horrendous thing in New York and Washington, D.C. six years ago.
According to Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld worked very hard in planning the war with Afghanistan to get the Joint Chiefs to ask and answer many, many questions. But there are many questions that remain:
- How else could we have responded to 9/11?
- Why would we risk war in a region that hates us?
- What could we expect in return for our violence?
- How can 9/11 help us answer questions about ourselves and our relationship to the rest of the world?
- What have we become since 9/11?
Our response to 9/11 was deeply disturbing in other ways. The question that Bush immediately posed after the tragedy was: Why do they hate us? He answered his own question by saying that the terrorists were envious of us and our way of life. They wanted what we had so, Bush reasoned, the only response we could make was to protect our things with war. However, it's odd that of all the things we wanted, our president never mentioned oil.
And so we went to war in Afghanistan, but we never got Osama. We never extinguished the hate between us and the terrorists; in fact, we inflamed it. We then went to war against Iraq to "get Saddam"-billed deceivingly as the perpetrator of 9/11-and now we are stuck there with no exit.
It's painful to think that we, the most powerful, most modern nation the world has ever seen, have automatically allowed ourselves to resort to war and violence . We have done nothing to transform the hatred heaped on us on 9/11 and, unfortunately, that hatred has spread amongst ourselves.
Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.