Five years ago, Americans, all horrified by the terrorist attacks, tended to have two different ideas about the underlying cause and the appropriate response.
One was to blame the attacks on terrorists who simply hated our freedom. "Freedom itself was attacked," said President George W. Bush. "And freedom will be defended." The president soon led the country into war and pushed through a series of new measures to consolidate the national government’s police powers at home. The answer to 9/11 was more militarism and more government. As time went on, the pro-war crowd became more adamant that it was American liberty that drew the terrorists’ ire, and that, indeed, the U.S. had not been active enough in its foreign policy before 9/11. Bush said upon his re-inauguration that the attacks came after "years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical."
The other reaction on 9/11, the minority one, was to regard the attacks primarily as a response to years of belligerent U.S. foreign policy. The main target was not America’s freedom, its commerce, its tolerant culture, but rather its arrogant imperialism in the Middle East, its coziness with secular dictators, its cavalier bombing campaigns, its troops stationed in the midst of other countries, its sanctions through the UN that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Only those who had some idea of what the U.S. government had been doing abroad — sadly, a small percentage of Americans — tended to think that this was the root problem that should or even could be addressed by the U.S. government. No one denied that those responsible for the attacks deserved to be brought to justice. But more bombings of civilians, more foreign occupations, so thought this group, would not do. Such mass violence would not ensure security or bring justice. It would make matters worse. In the long term, the way to prevent future terrorist attacks, to reduce the threat to America, would be to retract the U.S. empire, to bring the troops home, to restore the classic American tradition of non-interventionism, peace, and free trade with the world.
The second group was outnumbered and so lost the argument, and the U.S. government went on to bomb and invade Afghanistan, and then, a year and a half later, initiate a massive operation of regime change and occupation in Iraq. Tens of thousands of people are now dead. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost homes, limbs, loved ones, and livelihoods. Iraq, in particular, continues its descent into chaos, becoming bloodier by the day. The world distrusts, fears and hates America as it never before did, only half a decade after international sympathy for America was at a peak. We are not any safer. Osama has still not been found — not to suggest that even his capture would make the last five years of death and destruction worthwhile. Although even antiwar Americans were quick to say some organized response was appropriate to apprehend the 9/11 culprits, it now appears that we would have been better off had the government done absolutely nothing at all.
Throughout the last five years, the pro-war crowd has often dismissed the repeated calls to restore a non-interventionist foreign policy as the equivalent of surrender. We have been told that ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, ending the meddling in the Middle East, would just be giving the terrorists what they want.
Well, for the sake of argument, let us concede to the pro-war camp that this is true. If all the terrorists want is for the U.S. government to refrain from killing people abroad and trying to run the world, isn’t that exactly what we non-interventionists were saying was the problem from the beginning? It might disturb the committed American militarist that Islamist fanatics would be happy if the foreign adventurism were to stop. But should it not in fact make the rest of us relieved that closing down the empire would make us safer?
If the U.S. stops its addiction to perpetual war the benefits at home would be great. We all know that war involves huge costs. More Americans have now died in Iraq and Afghanistan than died on 9/11, and tens of thousands have been terribly wounded. Families have been separated, and dreams delayed or smashed. In financial terms alone, the Iraq war by itself has cost each American man, woman and child more than a thousand dollars so far.
Would it not be better for Americans not to pay these huge costs in blood and treasure? Would it not be better not to be despised and feared by most of the world? If such "surrender" to the terrorists also means not being attacked, should we not consider surrendering? It has been five years since 9/11; if it’s not okay to start wondering aloud whether this might be a preferred strategy, then when will it?
Now, the hawks will respond that this is not all the terrorists want. The Islamists hate our freedom, we are reminded, and merely bringing our troops home will not forestall the aggression against us.
Well, if this is so, then we can not very well say that ending an interventionist foreign policy is "surrendering" to the terrorists. The pro-war camp can’t have it both ways: Either ending the war is what the terrorists want, or it is not. If the terrorists will indeed not be satisfied and will not relent in their attacks until American freedom itself is destroyed, then it is inaccurate to call the antiwar position a call for surrender, for the antiwar Americans do not and never did insist that we give up our freedom, only that we give up the empire.
In fact, it is the War Party that has suggested, at every turn, that we fight the terrorists by surrendering our freedom. They are the ones who defend the rape of the Fourth Amendment under the Patriot Act and National Security Letters, who grant that the Executive has the "inherent authority" to detain indefinitely, torture or kill anyone he deems a "terrorist," even without any Congressional or Judicial check on his power. It is the hawk who defends absurd airline security policies in the name of fighting terror. It is the warmonger whose response to a threat from abroad is to surrender our freedom, only so long as we are able to maintain our empire. He views it as worth it to trash the Bill of Rights and repeal the Magna Carta if, in exchange, our government gets to continue pushing foreigners around, too.
The truth is, some foreigners do hate and envy Americans for our freedom. Some will hate us no matter what. But it is not our freedom that has given these misanthropes their authority, their prestige, their sympathy, and their resources. It is what the U.S. government has done in our name that has popularized anti-Americanism. Look at how the Iraq War has turned much of the civilized world against us. And this is among those viewing the war from afar. Picture the aggression happening in your own backyard. A rational person should be able to see that most people are not going to sympathize with a superpower that starves their children, occupies their towns, bombs their homes, and tells them it is doing them a favor. A minority of terrorists and fanatics would indeed like to see us lose our liberty, but they thrive on a populist movement abroad that simply wants to see our government leave them alone. Indeed, the terrorist leaders out there benefit from American aggression, and without it they would lose their power and respect. If anyone has no incentive to see the U.S. empire and police state brought down, it is probably these monsters.
Five years have passed. It is time to ponder surrender. We must end the war on terror. We must relinquish our foreign policy before it destroys us as it has destroyed so many lives abroad. We must not, however, give in to those in Washington, DC, who hate our freedom and want to take it away. To continue this madness, this war and police statism, is to surrender the last virtues of our national heritage, our liberties, our stature as an admirable model to the peace-loving world. I only hope it is not too late. We have already surrendered so much.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.