On the morning of September 11, 2001, four commercial airliners were hijacked by 19 members of the militant Islamist organization al-Qaeda. One plane was deliberately flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center complex in Manhattan, closely followed by another crashing into the south tower. About 30 minutes later, a third plane collided into the western wall of The Pentagon in Arlington County, Virginia. The fourth and final aircraft crashed in a field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board.
The unprecedented coordinated attack resulted in a loss of nearly 3,000 lives, making it the deadliest act of terrorism in American history.
This surreal assault was monstrous and tragic beyond words, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the first “9/11”. On September 11, 1973, a CIA-backed military coup ousted Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, paving the way for two decades of brutal dictatorship under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet. More than 3,000 people were murdered by Pinochet’s regime, and approximately 32,000 were tortured. During this tyranny, Chile was part of a broad network of Latin American despots and death squads known as Operation Condor, which was assisted by a CIA base in Panama. This episode is but one example of violent American hegemony that has contributed to global resentment and even blowback, such as the aforementioned terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
In a series of interviews (published as a small book entitled, “9–11”), famous linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky discussed terrorism as a global phenomenon, including the Western double-standard regarding the term. By detailing an array of examples, such as Kosovo, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Sudan, Chomsky observed that, based on the conventional definition of the word, the U.S. is a top global purveyor of terror. The immediate death, destruction, trauma, and misery caused by this vicious tactic is abhorrent, but this violence can also perpetuate itself, often continuing for generations. Regarding the 9/11 attacks and the origins of al-Qaeda specifically, Chomsky explained:
“The CIA did have a role, a major one in fact, but that was in the 1980s, when it joined Pakistani intelligence and others (Saudi Arabia, Britain, etc.) in recruiting, training, and arming the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists it could find to fight a ‘Holy War’ against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan.”
The term “blowback” was coined by the CIA to describe the unintended consequences of covert actions undertaken by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. The word was first used in this context during internal speculation after the agency helped overthrow the Iranian government in 1953 (which I summarized in a previous article).
In his groundbreaking exposé of said phenomenon, the late Chalmers Johnson vividly chronicled the far-reaching tentacles of the post-war American empire. He explained how this multi-faceted hegemony causes profound resentment and hatred throughout the world, sometimes even leading to cases of blowback. Such incidents have included terrorist bombings against Americans abroad, with targets like U.S. embassies in Africa, a Pan Am flight above Lockerbie, Scotland, and an apartment building in Saudi Arabia that housed American soldiers. Blowback also includes organizations and foreign leaders who were once armed and/or supported by the U.S. later becoming enemies of the U.S., as was the case with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. And the presence of roughly 700 American military bases in 130 different countries only seems to fan these flames.
A post-9/11 manifestation of blowback was the formation of the gruesome terrorist organization known as ISIS, which was only possible thanks to the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Though ISIS committed shocking acts of violence, this outcome wasn’t shocking at all; it was entirely predictable, based on the U.S. military’s own research. In 2004, then-secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld requested a report from the Defense Science Board Task Force regarding the efficacy of American policy in the Middle East. The task force’s response included the following:
“American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists while diminishing support for the U.S. to single-digits in some Arab societies.[…] In the eyes of Muslims, American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has not led to democracy there, but only more chaos and suffering.[…] Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather, they hate our policies.”
This unsavory, yet sober analysis of our problematic role in foreign conflicts is often omitted from mainstream discourse because it is profoundly embarrassing to many of our prominent institutions and public officials. Acknowledging our own role in perpetuating mass violence calls into question the popular notions of American exceptionalism and American moral benevolence. President George W. Bush’s explanation of the events of September 11, 2001 (which occurred early in his first term) revolved around the phrase “they hate our freedoms.” Bush’s evaluation was vastly different from the words of the actual perpetrator, Osama bin Laden, who outlined his motives in a detailed “letter to America”. Though the missive is laced with Wahhabi rhetoric, it also elucidates bin Laden’s political grievances, including verification that 9/11 should be categorized as “blowback.”
Bin Laden’s objections to U.S. policy included its support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine (including the killing of civilians and destruction of homes), its sanctions against Iraq (resulting in at least half a million civilian deaths), its military bases throughout the Middle East (including in Saudi Arabia), its military actions in Somalia, and its support for regimes that have killed and oppressed Muslims throughout the world. This al-Qaeda kingpin may have been an extremist and a mass-murderer, but his explanation certainly holds more water than Bush’s glib retort.
The devastation caused by the 9/11 attacks inspired a beautiful outpouring of support and solidarity among people from all backgrounds coming together to assist and comfort one another. However, the aftermath of this atrocity also unleashed pervasive nationalism, ethnic and religious profiling, violations of constitutional rights, and imperialistic mass murder in the Middle East.
The 9/11 slogan became “Never Forget.” As a nation, we certainly won’t forget such a large-scale catastrophe, but in a sense, we also “Never Remember.” Instead of starting the timeline only when an event affects us directly, we should analyze the historical context of such events, and have the courage to look in the mirror and see our decades of relentless global violence, both covert and overt. We should also – as participants in a democracy – evaluate our role in the profound suffering, sorrow, resentment, and blowback these policies have generated.
The Korean War may help put this in perspective: American military aggression in North Korea between 1950 and 1953 resulted in the equivalent of hundreds of 9/11s, based on the respective death tolls. The same is true of American aggression in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and ’70s. In recent decades, the so-called “War on Terror” has taken the lives of approximately 1.3 million people. The scope of these blood-drenched foreign conquests, combined with consistent historic U.S. support for dictatorships and death squads, makes it easy to see why America is widely perceived as the greatest threat to world peace.
On this dark anniversary, let’s honor the victims of September 11, 2001, by overcoming our tribalistic tendencies and remembering the victims of our own terrorism as well. If we change our ways, we can address the root causes of these conflicts, and prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future. Let’s acknowledge our history, confront our current complicity in mass murder (in Gaza and Yemen, for instance), and work to end this cycle of violence.