Writing in 2002, just months after the 9/11 attacks, Phyllis Bennis anticipated the consequences of the likely U.S. response: that a war in Afghanistan would likely cause more problems than it solved; that Iraq was already in the crosshairs from the moment of the 9/11 attacks; that the Bush administration would use the attacks to massively expand executive branch powers and curtail civil liberties; that the U.S. war would increase global instability, not restore it. Almost all she predicted has come to pass.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
This essay is adapted from Bennis’ July 2002 book, Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis.
George Bush had a choice on September 11. First, he could have insisted that his pilot land Air Force One in New York City (instead of flying around and landing at obscure refueling stops ostensibly because of claims of threats to the plane) so he could address the country immediately from what was not yet known as Ground Zero. He could have immediately given a very clear and unequivocal speech to his nation and to the world. The president’s address might have gone something like this:
Our people have been the victims of a horrific crime, a crime against humanity.
We mourn together the victims of this terrible crime, and we pledge to take care of all its victims even as we begin our efforts to understand how and why such a crime could happen and to find and bring to justice the perpetrators of this crime. We recognize today that this attack, like others in so many other countries and places around the world, has international ramifications.
We recognize even at the beginning of this crisis that we cannot answer this crime alone. This was not an act of war, carried out by a country, and we will not turn to war against any country. That will not find the perpetrators or bring them to justice, nor will it prevent future such crimes from occurring. Instead, we need a legal framework that is international in scope and that relies on international law and the United Nations Charter for its legitimacy.
Even as we continue the task of rescuing the living and burying the dead, we begin with a recognition that we were wrong in the past to reject the International Criminal Court. We understand in a whole new way tonight why such a Court must be created, and we now pledge our political and financial support to ensuring that such a Court, independent and empowered to act independently, can be built. …[S]uch a court will be used even-handedly—for we must unite in opposing all terrorists, not just some. That means all who are responsible for war crimes and terrorism should be brought to justice. Henry Kissinger may be next in the dock with the perpetrators of these latest attacks, and maybe Generals Sharon and Pinochet will be next up. They should not be granted impunity simply because they were backed by the United States.
We approach this crime internationally because we know that the only sustainable justice is international justice. And justice—not war and not vengeance—is our goal. We will seek the perpetrators and bring them to trial in a legitimate and fair court. And beyond the immediate perpetrators, we will take seriously the challenge of understanding why this happened. Not only the easier question of why a few people would target our people and the symbols of our economic and military power in such a cruel way. But as well the distinct and much harder challenge of understanding why so many more people, in so many parts of the world, thought maybe this attack was not such a bad idea. We will look for root causes in realities of grinding poverty, political disempowerment, and social injustice that together create lives of desperation. And we will search for what role our policies, our economy, our military, our corporations, and our influence have played in creating those conditions. And we will change those realities.
We will honor the dead not with war but with justice, in their names. We will seek justice, based on international law and the UN Charter, and we will work to encourage internationalism, not our own domination, to do so.
And I say to you today that I make one more commitment in this time and in this place. There has been too much death today already. Americans and others from more than sixty countries were killed here, and that is already too much. We will prove that we can be different from terrorists who target innocent civilians. I make a commitment now, today, September 11, 2001, that not one more innocent life will be sacrificed in our search for justice.
In the real world, however, on the real September 11, the real President Bush said no such thing. Less than a month later the first bombers would strike Afghanistan. Thousands of civilians would die, and they would continue to die even as the elusive targets of the war remained at large.
Watching George Bush ratchet up the calls for war on that singular night, putting even grief aside to foment anger and vengeance as the only legitimate responses, one might have thought as The Crucible’s John Proctor did: ‘I have never knew until tonight that the world is gone daft with this nonsense.’
Unilateralism, in all its virulence, was proudly ascendant. US military supremacy was unabashedly the order of the day across the globe. Thirty-six thousand children still died every day as the result of malnutrition and treatable diseases.
As Kofi Annan noted in his 2002 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, for most people in the world, the world did not change on September 11. “The old problems that existed on 10 September, before the attack, are still with us: poverty, the elimination of poverty, the fight against HIV-AIDS, the question of the environment, and ensuring we stop exploiting resources the way we’ve been doing,” he said. “All these issues.…are still with us and I think we need to focus on them as well.”
The promising potential of such an international challenge, taking hesitant shape in the United Nations and elsewhere during the first months of the Bush Junior adminisration when governments had begun to stand up to US bullying, was abruptly shut down on September 11. But perhaps that challenge to the new US empire can be rebuilt. “We still believe that another world is possible,” wrote Bolivian human rights activist Oscar Olivares to friends in the US on September 12. “We are with you.”