It is nine years from the moment America’s heart stopped at 9:03 a.m., September 11, 2001. This was the precise moment the second plane struck the South Tower and threw the nation into a state of shock—the instant we realized we were under attack. The strongest nation in the world was stunned and immobile, paralyzed with fear. One hour and two minutes later America’s heart began beating once again with a shot of adrenaline when the South Tower collapsed. We sprung into action and haven’t stopped since.
Promises were made to us that day and many days since. We were promised American troops would hunt down the terrorists and “smoke ’em out” of their caves. We would take the fight to the “evil-doers” and disrupt the vast terrorist network around the globe. The Bush administration stepped into Soviet shoes by assuming their unwinnable fight in Afghanistan. Yet we diverted our focus to Iraq and allowed those responsible for 9/11 to slip away. We committed the unforgivable sin in warfare of dividing our attention and took firm control of the ministry of oil in Iraq while the rest of the country burned and Afghanistan floundered.
We will probably never know if the Bush Doctrine has any merit as it was improperly applied to nations that didn’t pose a threat to us as a whole. We have, however, learned that democracy is not portable. It cannot be imposed; rather, it must be grown in a territory governed by firm secular guidelines by which laws are crafted and enforced. And while the underpinnings of a nation’s code of law may be similar to the moral tenets shared by the world’s most practiced religions, they must also operate independently. Democracy is also aided by a diverse economic base stemming from rich agrarian resources that foster infrastructure growth. None of these were fully developed in the nations we overthrew.
In Iraq the American neo-cons attempted to manufacture something that looks and feels like democracy from a single-source oil economy through the forced installation of infrastructure and free elections. These are important tributaries of democracy but not the river from which it flows. Bush’s belief that we would win hearts and minds in the Middle East by spreading democracy through state-building had the reverse effect of further poisoning the region and positioning Iran and Pakistan, two powerful nuclear nations, against us. Now, as we withdraw thousands of our troops from Iraq on the eve of 9/11, we are left to ponder the one war that remains.
Americans didn’t need a war to assuage our anger after 9/11. We needed to punish the leadership of the radical fundamentalists who attacked us. We needed baseball and country music, candlelight vigils and Bin Laden’s head on a platter. How miraculous it would have been had we sent elite military teams to Afghanistan to rout the Taliban and focused all of our energy on bringing Osama Bin Laden to justice. Imagine how quickly we could have responded to the aftermath of Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and how prepared we would have been to assist in Haiti. The experience our troops would have received from these humanitarian exercises would have prepared us for the devastating floods in Pakistan today; an effort that could truly win over hearts and minds.
No, democracy is not portable, but humanity is. And as we ready ourselves to return to that moment nine years ago, we will also revisit some remarkable acts of humanity that shone on that day. Acts of heroism performed by citizens, not governments; just as our heroism abroad was in the actions of our soldiers and not the policies they obeyed.