On Monday, legendary singer Tony Bennett made a striking comment about the 9/11 hijackers: “They flew the plane in, but we caused it, because we were bombing them and they told us to stop.” He clarified his remarks a day later, stating, “There is simply no excuse for terrorism and the murder of the nearly 3,000 innocent victims of the 9/11 attacks on our country.” Was the soulful crooner apologizing for the terrorists or trying to understand why they hate us?
Let me be clear: the United States is not responsible for the attacks of 9/11. Bennett’s comments warrant a clear, strong response, but what sort of response is appropriate? It has become commonplace for some members of the American media and individuals in our society to escalate opinionated rhetoric into controversies that serve a political agenda. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, knee-jerk and inflammatory rhetoric, without the consideration of context or history, is likely to inflame only passion, muddle debate and lead to flawed policy decisions.
When confronting an enemy such as al-Qaida, national leaders of democratic countries must work to understand why a group or individuals would commit themselves to criminal acts and war, as al-Qaida and its adherents have done. It makes sense that many al-Qaida members (albeit not all of their leaders), given the combination of little or no education apart from extremist religious teachings (which is not restricted to Islam), homogenous and narrow relationships, and personal experience with relatives and friends suffering or dying directly or indirectly from American actions and policies, were motivated to use terrorism to advance their agenda.
Do such beliefs, rooted in a combination of religious orthodoxy, intolerance and hatred, justify atrocities? No. Does this mean that the United States should not defend itself when attacked or finds itself in danger as it did from people operating out of Afghanistan? No. Did American and allied soldiers lay down their lives and commit countless acts of courage in the fight against those who wish to kill innocent people pointlessly? No.
But as a country founded upon unambiguous principles and values, we must consider our policies and actions with more care and consciousness before using force and launching operations that are likely to cause collateral damage and exacerbate international instability over the long term. The United States has a history of mounting up with bugles blaring, giving little thought to the potential consequences that likely will come back to bite us down the road. It is not difficult to trace patterns connecting many present-day conflicts to shortsighted decisions made by great powers during and following the era of colonialism and the Cold War. And in the case of American international history, many peoples and places around the world are still suffering from the effects of American actions, stretching back all the way back to the age of Manifest Destiny and the dawn of American imperialism.
This is not an apology. It is reality. And it is also true that American policies have helped countries and individuals around the world gain access to better nutrition, medical care and education. We have inspired the world by enacting the Civil Rights Act, landing living human beings on the moon and defeating the evils of the Axis powers through global collaborative efforts. Yet as we move forward in a new century, it is crucial for our leaders to appreciate that policies should not be constructed solely upon conceptions of profit and loss statements, perceptions of the balance of power, or considerations for the expansion of their political capital. Accounting for the human element may be one of the greatest challenges confronting policy makers — it must be constantly taken into account and made a priority if we are to find a way to end the “Long War” and find a path to peace with our enemies. But if we continue to act without thought or care as to the cost to others, the United States will continue to generate problems and enemies for the free peoples of the future. It is folly to ignore human beings and the memories we possess.
Sam Teicher is a senior in Silliman College.