[Publisher’s Note] Six Minutes of Silence, by John R. MacArthur | Harper's Magazine

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I would have preferred those few moments of silent reflection to be multiplied by ten, if only to encourage the political and media leadership to shut up and think about all the mistakes they made and all the nonsense they spewed in the two decades that followed.
A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on October 4, 2021. Translated from the French by Elettra Pauletto.

The official New York commemoration of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States was accompanied this past month by a total of six minutes of silence, which were observed in stages during a four-and-a-half-hour ceremony that paid tribute to the victims of the attacks. I would have preferred those few moments of silent reflection to be multiplied by ten, if only to encourage the political and media leadership to shut up and think about all the mistakes they made and all the nonsense they spewed in the two decades that followed. America’s response and its consequences cannot be considered either a military success or a consolation for the families who lost their loved ones on that day twenty years ago.

Although the history is well known, it has already been largely forgotten. And regrettably, the outpouring of sentiment hasn’t led to a more insightful understanding of the most deadly attack by an outside enemy inside the U.S. in the history of the country. President George W. Bush was caught off guard despite warnings of the threat from al-Qaeda by chief counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke. Bush immediately put on a show of strength, ignoring international law and without first researching the source of the attack. In his arrogance and blindness, he avoided any serious reassessment of American foreign policy. Clarke cites Bush in his book Against All Enemies: “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” Yeah, right! The invasion of Afghanistan and of Iraq, which occurred without UN sanction, and the resulting overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, cost hundreds of thousands of lives and caused an enormous refugee crisis that continues to this day.

Bush’s lack of concern for the law of nations also led to the horrors of the extrajudicial prison at Guantánamo, to the torture of suspects at Abu Ghraib prison, and to “black sites” in various countries, including Afghanistan, where the CIA interrogated and tortured detainees. Bush never expressed regret for his policies, but this national disgrace might not have been so despicable if the president and his main advisers at the Pentagon—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy of Defense Paul Wolfowitz—had at least targeted the actual enemies of the United States. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz exaggerated the ties between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But no Afghans taught the September 11 hijackers how to fly a plane. No members of the Taliban enrolled in the Florida flight school where two Arabs, Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, learned the skills they needed to bring down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Yes, the Taliban harbored Osama bin Laden, in part as recognition that this rich Saudi (in harmony with the CIA) had supported Afghan resistance against the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s. Atta and Shehhi, however, began their terrorist careers in Hamburg, where they founded a cell that was instrumental in planning the September 11 attacks. Needless to say, such a plot can be hatched anywhere, but in fact they started their technical training to fly jet planes in Germany. Either way, bin Laden had left Afghanistan for Pakistan before the American army even arrived, and he eventually settled down less than a mile from the Pakistani military academy. So, according to Bush’s logic, shouldn’t we have invaded Hamburg and Islamabad?

Was this backstory told over the airwaves during last month’s national mourning? I doubt it, because American memory is short and the idea of being involved with murderers who were primarily Saudi, even if unwittingly, remains unthinkable because of Saudi Arabia’s inexpensive and inexhaustible oil supply. A lawsuit filed by victims’ families against Saudi entities for alleged collaboration with al-Qaeda is progressing excruciatingly slowly, even though President Biden finally ordered the opening, for now minimal, of the secret FBI file and its investigation into the origins of the September 11 attacks.

Unfortunately, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan has reanimated the worst of the Bush-era hawks, who continue to justify the invasion and occupation. Instead of observing his own moment of silence, Paul Wolfowitz relaunched his discredited theories: “The war with that gang and its affiliates won’t end because the U.S. has quit…It’s a shame they [the Islamic State-Khorasan Province and the Taliban] can’t both lose…but whoever wins will make Afghanistan a haven for anti-American terrorists.” Which is why we stayed for so long, “to prevent a murderous gang from regaining control of Afghanistan, where…they enabled an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people on American soil.” This coming from the same conman who spread lies about Saddam Hussein, an anti-Islamist, collaborating with Osama bin Laden, an ardent Islamist, and possessing the atomic bomb as well as a large number of chemical weapons.

The worst part is that Wolfowitz, an extreme neoconservative, was backed by an almost hysterical liberal consensus, which lamented the plight of Afghan women and that now calls Biden’s good sense in pulling U.S. troops out of the country a “catastrophe” and a “disaster.” The rights of Afghan women are certainly important, but would a permanent occupation really have suppressed Afghan violence, not just against women? In addition to its immorality (more than 47,000 Afghan civilians and 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed since 2001), a continued American presence would have guaranteed a constant flow of new recruits into the Taliban and more bloodshed. I pray that the deafening insults against President Biden turn into silent remorse.

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