The 10th anniversary observances for 9/11 are now over, thankfully. The images of that day are as painful as ever. But the thought of what has happened to us as a nation, and what we have become, is even more so.
It is customary to speak of those who died on 9/11 as tragic victims. But a tragic victim knows why and by whom he is being punished. He knows, too, that his own actions have been contributory to his punishment. This was not true of the victims of 9/11. They were killed in an instant or perished within minutes with no idea of what had happened to them or why it had happened. They were snuffed out by a terrorist act that targeted them, as individuals, randomly. Their deaths were meaningless, and consequently horrific. They were the victims of a crime.
It is important to bear this in mind. The terrorist attackers believed, of course, that they were visiting divine punishment on their victims, and that this punishment was justified. But genuinely moral acts of retribution require individual culpability, not to mention due process. The victims of 9/11 were guilty of nothing but taking a plane or working in a building targeted for destruction. It is the very nature of modern terrorism that it is indiscriminate. It does not care who it kills and it does not care how many, but the more who die, the better. A great many died on 9/11.
A great many have died since. No American has perished on American soil by the hand of a terrorist in the past 10 years. Foreign countries have been successfully targeted, but as some commentators have pointed out, the risk of being killed by a terrorist is less than that of being struck by lightning. However, a great many innocent people have been killed as a result of the so-called war on terror. They continue to die daily. Their numbers are not counted as the victims of 9/11 were. Their very existence is denied by the Obama administration, which recently made the preposterous claim that not a single civilian was killed by drone air attacks in Afghanistan in the past year.
The Lancet, a highly respected British medical journal, calculated a while back that something on the order of 655,000 civilians had died either directly or indirectly from our invasion of Iraq. That number has, of course, risen since then. All of these deaths are as morally culpable as those that occurred on 9/11, because the Iraq War — a baseless war of aggression — was carried out on the false claim that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11 and had secret stores of so-called weapons of mass destruction. The members of the Bush administration who made it knew that the claim was phony, as some of us suspected and all of us know now. The deaths that resulted — civilian, military, Iraqi, American and other – were as much the result of a crime as those inflicted by Al Qaeda. The only difference is the vastly greater number of deaths inflicted.
Afghanistan, a country roughly the size of Iraq, has suffered on an even larger scale in our ongoing 10-year war. The country’s rulers, unlike Saddam, were complicit in the 9/11 attacks because they tolerated terrorist training bases on their soil. The devastation we have subsequently wreaked on that already unhappy land, as well as on Pakistan, has far exceeded any proportionate response. It also quite deliberately obscured the fact that among state actors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates bore far more responsibility for 9/11 than the Taliban government of Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan has, in that sense, been a diversionary war from the beginning. It is as if, after Pearl Harbor, we had declared war not on Japan, but a minor Japanese client state.
I leave to one side the damage we have inflicted on ourselves in the name of 9/11— the erosion of civil liberties, due process and the privacy of everyday lives. I count only the actual innocent dead. Those we have slain now so far exceed those slain on 9/11 that we have, in fact, lost the moral right to mourn them. We can no longer honor the memory of those our actions have so terribly defamed. That is why I suggest that if tragedy exists here, the transgression is ours. The question that remains is what punishment we deserve. The international community will not bring us to book. We are too powerful to be judged by others, even though at the Nuremberg war trials we affirmed our willingness to be judged by the same justice we meted out to others.
No, we can only be punished by ourselves. What can that punishment be? We can only lose what we have loved most: freedom. The freedom that has been taken away from us in the name of a war on terror, step-by-step and year-by-year, is the real price of our response to 9/11. When that loss is complete, the last act of punishment will follow: we will no longer even remember what our freedom was. We will still espouse its myth and honor its rituals. We will simply have lost all notion of its reality, of what and who free citizens are.
In ancient tragedy, the gods fit the punishment to the crime. Today, it is we who do so for ourselves. The moment of tragic recognition was one of agonizing awareness. For us, it will be oblivion.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at [email protected]org.