by Kevin Nugent/Love and Rage
Terrorists affiliated with ISIS struck Paris over the weekend, killing at least 129 people and injuring hundreds more. The world recoiled in horror and roundly condemned the attacks. The warm sentiments directed toward France from around the world, as well as the outcry for vengeance, strongly parallel the reaction of the international community to the attacks that occurred in the United States in the September of 2001.
A common refrain in response to these types of attacks is to “never forget.” Never forget the attacks, never forget the devastation, and most of all, never forget the victims. I do not think many people would disagree with these statements, nor do I think it is even possible to forget such traumatic events. But when I hear the phrase “never forget,” the attacks themselves aren’t what immediately spring to mind. The lessons learned in the aftermath of the attacks are just as important, if not more so, and it seems as though that with the passage of time those lessons are being pushed further to the margins or forgotten altogether. Yet right now, those lessons are more important than ever.
The years following 9/11 were marked by a politics of fear, suspicion and distrust. United States citizens were not only willing, but eager to subvert long-held American values in fighting the “War on Terror.” We abandoned the ideas that lay the foundation of the American system, like the writ of habeas corpus, a truly balanced federalist separation of powers, and the notion of a restrained spying and data collection apparatus, among others. Our gut-based quest to bring the attackers to justice led to a clumsy, reckless and incoherent set of wars that cost more American lives than the initial attacks, not to mention billions of dollars lost and hundreds of thousands of innocent causalities in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. We must acknowledge that remembering our mistakes and using them as a catalyst to change our current behavior is absolutely crucial, and so much more so than a simple remembrance of a tragedy as it might appear in a history book or time-capsuled video footage.
We are now going on nearly 15 years of constant and sustained combat in the Middle East. Since 2001, 5,269 American soldiers have been killed in battle, a figure almost twice as high as the number of people killed in 9/11. In addition, the number of innocent civilians and non-enemy combatants that have been killed in the region since 2001 is a national embarrassment, to say the least. While it is difficult to nail down an exact figure due to the inherently fluid nature of the “War on Terror,” many have tried. According to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, 210,000 civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have died as a result American intervention in the region. The most disturbing element of this statistic is that the vast majority of these deaths resulted from war-related malnutrition or other environmental factors, like a crippled health care system or decimated infrastructure, than directly via combat. And after all of the fighting and the death and the destruction, is the world a safer place today than when we started? The attacks in Paris seem to suggest that it is not.
Remote controlled drones have largely taken the place of troops on the ground, but they are no less likely to cause unjust “collateral damage.” According to a cache of secret documents obtained by the Intercept, the majority of people killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries are not the intended targets. Drone strikes conducted in northern Afghanistan between January 2012 and February 2013 killed 200 people, with only 35 of the kills being considered “intentional targets.” According to the UK-based human rights group Reprieve, American drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have killed 1,147 people, with only 41 of them being intentional targets. This means that 28 people are killed unintentionally for every intentional target in these types of strikes, and this statistic alone says nothing about the guilt or innocence of the intended targets themselves. The U.S. drone strike of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan last month that killed 16 people demonstrates just how wrong we can get it.
In 2013, the families of drone strike victims were given, for the first time ever, the opportunity to speak before Congress and share their experiences. One young boy, whose grandmother had been killed in a drone strike that coincidentally failed to kill any enemy combatants, told lawmakers, “I no longer love blue skies. I prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray, and for a short period of time, the mental tension and fear eases. But when the sky brightens, the drones return, and so does the fear.” While “terrorism” is a big topic of conversation in the United States, precisely zero Americans live under the kind of constant stress and fear that these victims are forced to endure. And the worst part is that we are not the bystanders, or the onlookers, or even the enablers in this scenario, but the primary aggressor.
Not only is this approach to foreign policy and global safety unethical, it is counter-productive. Even if these imprecise drone strikes are removing dangerous individuals, the strikes are likely radicalizing more than they are killing. All of the friends and family of the innocents killed by drone strikes will almost certainly be more sympathetic to anti-western sentiment and activities at best, or make them join or provide support for anti-American activities at worst. These instruments of war grow the strength of extremist groups and ultimately lead to the creation of new ones like ISIS. If we believe we can bomb our war to sustained peace, we are in for a rude awakening. As George Orwell implicitly warned us in his work, war is not peace.
In addition to these victims, American civil liberties are also casualties in the War on Terror. Legislation like the Patriot Act, the Military Commissions Act, and amendments to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and National Security Act expanded the power of the federal government exponentially, with most of the new powers being absorbed by the executive branch. The federal government now has tremendous power to spy on its citizens, collect data and deny the right to a free and fair trial to people suspected of engaging in terrorist activities. While Americans express fears about the “socialist” Barack Obama coming to take their guns and their paychecks, they have already missed the federal government’s big power grab, and it happened with their support.
The attacks that occurred in New York and Paris are obviously inexcusable and we should never forget them. However, the vast majority of the damage done to the United States in recent years has been self-inflicted. Osama Bin Laden didn’t upend our Constitutional principles; we did. Saddam Hussein didn’t start multiple wars that led to the loss of thousands of innocent lives and billions of dollars; we did. How we react to transgressions is what defines us and our future, and this is what we should truly “never forget.”
Kevin Nugent is an Oriskany, NY native who is currently teaching English with his wife in South Korea. Kevin previously sat on the Board of Directors for Central New York Citizens in Action, Inc. and taught as an adjunct lecturer of Government and Politics at Utica College.