Twenty years ago, our nation faced a defining and harrowing moment. Past generations had moments like it in Pearl Harbor and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but for us the horror was live on television. It was an event that etched traumatic images into the national psyche as each of us marked where we were and what we were doing that fateful Tuesday morning when the World Trade Center towers were taken down by an unprecedented act of terrorism. It sparked grief and fear. It sparked a renewed sense of patriotism. And it sparked war.
I, like everybody old enough, remember what I was doing that morning. I was in a meeting at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where I served as associate provost before coming to Berea, when the news reached us. We ceased our business, turned on the television and spent the rest of the morning watching in horror as people trapped on the upper floors of the north tower had no option but to jump. We tried frantically to reach a colleague who was in New York with a morning appointment in that very building with a trustee, Howard Lutnick, CEO of the financial company Cantor Fitzgerald headquartered on the top five floors of the north tower. Luckily, neither was in the building, but Lutnick’s brother was, along with most of his employees. They all perished. My first reaction, like those of many Americans, was that we had been attacked, and we needed to fight back.
Now that the U.S. has exited Afghanistan 20 years later, we are still feeling the consequences of that morning. Though fighting back seemed clear then, it’s clear now that we needed to do more than that. We, as a nation forced onto the defensive by a shocking attack, turned away from the approach of encouraging democratic values and human rights through aid to other countries and diplomacy and instead initiated military confrontations with the cultural groups that had attacked us. But repression can be a dangerous strategy, one that does not necessarily serve the causes of world peace and public safety.
The war in Afghanistan, initiated to eliminate a safe haven for terrorists, was successful in driving out Al-Qaeda, but the longer-term effort to impose a new sort of society and government there proved to be difficult and costly. The war in Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein on the premise that he would provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists. No such weapons were ever found, and now Iraq is an unstable country where ISIS, a new threat to world peace and human rights, emerged and has now spread to other countries, notably Afghanistan as well.
I do not pretend to know the answer to the dilemmas in the Middle East, but 20 years of war does not seem to have been the solution. It’s hard to argue that we are living in a safer world. That may be because repression of other cultures and ideologies breeds more terrorism, and we find ourselves having to respond to new threats.
Whole groups of people, millions strong in some cases, have been left behind as the rest of the world progresses toward greater prosperity and a better quality of life. Some people within those groups will inevitably identify the people and countries that are leaving them behind as enemies and turn to violence. We can confront threats and respond to attacks, but until we find a way to support the advance of all people who share the planet, more terror groups will continue to emerge. Maybe now it is time to shift our nation’s approach and priorities back to addressing root causes of disaffection.
It is worth noting that this direction has been chosen before by our country with considerable success. Following World War II, rather than continuing to treat our adversaries in Europe and Asia as enemies, we engaged in a massive restoration program called the Marshall Plan. Those former adversaries are now strong democracies and reliable allies of the United States.
Still, we should not necessarily expect that degree of success, and we should be ready to accept a lengthy commitment. We invested 20 years, trillions of dollars and the well-being and lives of many brave Americans in trying to impose a different society in Afghanistan. In order to move the needle, we may need to spend the next 20 years applying economic pressure and forging multinational partnerships that reward good behavior and punish actions contrary to democratic values and human rights. It’s time for a new approach.