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9/11 Arithmetic
America’s Hijackers, Five Years On

On Dec. 29, 2002 , The New York Times published this brief letter by Rita Lasar: “Since my brother died on Sept. 11, 2001 , his death has been used to justify the deaths of thousands of Afghan men, women and children. His death has been used to justify the possible pre-emptive strike against Iraq . His death has been used to justify the rounding up and incarceration of many ordinary citizens of Islamic heritage, all in the name of making America safer. I don’t feel safer, and if you ask most Americans, neither do they. And now the steel removed from the World Trade Center is going to be used to build a Navy warship to bring death to countless others. Is there no end to this senseless killing our country is embarked on?”

Apparently not.

Sometime in the next two weeks, maybe even on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the number of American soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan (2,955) will exceed the number of people killed on 9/11 — if it hasn’t already. The number exceeds the 9/11 figure by several hundred if contractors, journalists, adventurers and mercenaries are included. And let’s not forget the Iraqis and Afghans who have been killed. Conservative estimates put the figure at 41,000 to 45,000 in Iraq alone in what can only be termed a slaughter so disproportionate to the 9/11attacks, and so out of whack with its origins, that two words should come to mind by now regarding America ’s response: war crimes.

Actual crimes highlighted by a few spot cases catch a few headlines on slow days: Soldiers’ allegedly premeditated March rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl in an Iraqi town named for the Prophet Muhammad; the Massacre of 24 Iraqis by Marines in Haditha last year (where the Marines now stationed there are treated to soft-porn Vegas-type live shows); the torture and humiliation of prisoners in Iraqi jails; the burning of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. But the crime that’ll never be prosecuted is the larger transformation of Afghan and Iraqi societies from indigenous to American versions of hell. The difference is in who supplies the flames’ fuel.

Repressive regimes are history’s parasites. As long as they stay within their borders, containing them, maybe subverting them, is wise. Invading them makes us the parasites. The Bush administration violently shattered two broken but nevertheless functioning societies without a clue about putting them together again. On a human level, the result is worse than whatever existed before 2001. The crime wasn’t the original intent to liberate and democratize, but in the subsequent immersion in failure at the expense of two nations in order to save face for America — to not “cut and run,” as jingos who don’t mind spilling other people’s blood put it.

We always knew what terrorists were capable of. They didn’t disappoint. After 9/11 we were led to believe that America still stood for a vision that once inspired the world. We were deceived. After five years it’s no longer credible to say America has a higher moral purpose than terrorists when American occupation in Iraq fibrillates the country into a permanent state of war, and a static presence risks doing the same to Afghanistan . It isn’t so simple as putting the blame on sectarianism in Iraq and tribalism in Afghanistan . That’s the old Orientalist view — “They’re backward, they don’t know better.” Did we?

The Middle East is more than ever the cradle of civilization’s enemies, but the United States is rocking that cradle while it shatters its own moral and constitutional legacy. A year after the attacks, the Times asked many prominent writers to reflect “on an America Transformed.” Newt Gingrich yelled for pre-emptive wars. He got them. Kathleen Sullivan, the Dean of Stanford Law School, worried about a severe back-sliding on civil liberties. Her worries now seem quaintly understated. Muhammad Ali was “saddened to think that one of the effects of Sept. 11 is the fearful way in which many Americans now look at Muslims” — the way blacks were looked at. Stephen Carter, author of “The Culture of Disbelief,” had been heartened by the patriotic response in the months after the attacks but worried about “our accelerating slide toward the way things used to be.”

Yet the country is more divided, less secure, less free, more universally reviled abroad than at any point in history, and economically flimsy on top of that. Reclaiming the way things used to be would be a triumph, a restoration of law and reason over madness. If only we recognized who the true hijackers of American values really are.

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