Like many of you, we are watching with horror the incompetent way America is exiting from Afghanistan. We do not question whether we should have withdrawn from the twenty-year war. Indeed, this week’s events provide more evidence we should. Others may disagree and we respect their opinions. But, regardless of your views on leaving, many of us are concerned with the way we withdrew, especially the inability or unwillingness to provide timely exits for the thousands of Afghanis who helped the U.S. and whose lives are in danger under Taliban-rule, as well as a seemingly complete lack of coordination with allies, whose personnel are also at risk.

This week’s exit from Afghanistan impelled us to reflect, and drove us to re-read, what we wrote on an old, now discontinued blog, a week after September 11th. We worried then that America’s reaction to September 11th would be more damaging than the attack itself. Unfortunately, events over the last 20 years have mostly confirmed that fear.

So, this week we detour from the usual format of International Need to Know to publish in full that blog post from nearly two decades ago. We got a number of things wrong in the post, we were perhaps naïve in other parts, but in general we believe the post holds up fairly well. Remember, it was written only a few days after the towers came down, and we knew someone who died in the towers, which certainly colored our views. In addition, at that time there was much we did not yet know and things we thought we knew as facts which would later be disproven.

At any rate, you can judge for yourselves below. Next week, we will return to our regularly scheduled programming.

From September 2001

The horror and tragedy of September 11 is not reason to exaggerate and to emote irresponsibly. To begin with, this is not worse than Pearl Harbor as many have said. In 1942, the United States was attacked by imperialist Japan and soon would be at war with Nazi Germany. Those nations alone and together were far more powerful and threatened American democracy far, far more than the raging band of terrorists we face today. Osama Bin Laden and what ever other foes we face in the world today do not have the capability to destroy western democracies as did Japan and Germany (only we have that power). Even if a state is directly involved, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the forces lined up against us still pale in comparison to what we faced in the last century.

None of this is to diminish the horror of what our world witnessed earlier this week. But especially in times of crisis, reason and rational thought must prevail, not emotions and hysteria. The passions and fears we feel are understandable. Unlike 60 years ago, when violent acts were read about in newsprint, sometimes days after they occurred, modern communications technology provides instant virtual trauma. Because so many saw the 110-story towers crumble in real time, an enormous number of people are suffering psychologically in ways similar to eyewitnesses to wars. But if we are to conquer our external foes we must also conquer our emotions and the worst parts of our nature.

Ironically, we had a national day of prayer to remember those killed by religious fanatics. But religion, apart from its good for the soul, is a healing salve, and certainly acted as that last Friday. After last Friday’s religious and secular services, soul searching and soothing, the time is now for reason and rational thought. President Bush has declared war in every way but constitutionally (only Congress can do that and has continued its 60 year streak of shirking its responsibility). The question is what kind of a war will it be and against whom.

We don’t know who exactly are behind the attacks, and government officials if they know, are not yet telling us. But there are at least three things we do know which may help guide us in preparing a response to the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.

1. Those that perpetrated the attacks do not have the military power to defeat the United States, only we can defeat ourselves. It is true that they can strike terror into our population and extract significant casualties, but they cannot occupy us or defeat us as a country. The United States will not be overthrown by these enemies. However, we can do the job for them. It has been invigorating to see most of the country come together and push forward nearly as one. However, times of unanimity are the most dangerous for a democracy. That is when our rights are most at risk. I hear reporters, commentators, politicians, and every day citizens talk about freedoms to which they say we have become too accustomed and which must now be curtailed. Their comments should scare every civil libertarian, every one who believes in the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” It may seem silly to repeat this basic civic lesson but in these times when I hear the so-called liberal Senator Hillary Clinton seriously consider racial profiling it bears repeating: certain of our rights, not just as Americans but as human beings, are inalienable. Governments do not give these rights, our creator, be it God, Yaweh, Allah or Mother Nature give them. Governments’ just powers are derived from the people not vice versa.

Yes, additional security measure will need to be taken. But these measures must not take away the basic inalienable rights of human beings. They must also be based in common sense. One unfortunate fact of life is that if an entity wants to kill, and they don’t mind being killed themselves, no matter what security efforts we take, we will fail to stop them. As Michael Corleone said in Godfather II, “If anything in this life is certain; if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” Yes, more than 5,000 people were killed on September 11 and more may be killed in future attacks, but the odds of any one individual being killed in a terrorist attack remain small. We must take action against terrorism that does not unduly disrupt our daily living, wreak havoc on our economy or take away our inalienable rights.

All this is not to diminish the threat we face, nor the need to confront it. It is important that something is done now before those involved in the attacks on New York and D.C. gain capacities to inflict even worse damage. There is some evidence that terrorist networks have tried to purchase uranium. Iraq certainly has tried over the years to gain nuclear capability and has used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds. Evidence is emerging that radical Muslims have added chemical and biological weapons to their arsenal. Some say we must make our response to the attacks measured, some want to carpet bomb entire regions of the world. Our response should be neither measured nor vengeful, it should be effective.

2. Despite the shouts of war by United States politicians, this is not a war on America. It is a war on modernity. This conflict has heated up around the world since the end of the Cold War. Kindred souls to the Al-Qaeda exist in the United States, although they are not Muslim. Modernity encompasses not just technology or liberalized, globalized economies but also the new social structures struggling to be built here in the United States and abroad. The Unabomber was at war with his personal demons but also against modern technology. Timothy McVeigh battled against what he viewed as the large, oppressive government of the United States. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are in a thus far non-violent struggle against the social reforms of the previous century. “God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve,” said Falwell on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club show. He went on to say, ” I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’ ”

The main divisions in the United States–which were quite clear in the last election–are social. As society has reformed and rights were gained for women, gays and lesbians, as different life styles were allowed to live in the open, a huge resentment cropped up in large parts of the U.S. population. It would be a mistake to think that Falwell and Robertson are fringe minorities. Listen to talk radio and you will hear these social luddites’ legions of followers. Similar strains between progressives and reactionaries are occurring around the world.

3. As with most outbreaks of violence, this one occurs because of a failure of policy. During the final years of the Cold War, the United States pushed for democratization and economic liberalization all over the world with one notable exception–the Middle East. President George Bush the senior practiced power politics, mostly abandoning the push for democracy and economic liberalization that the Carter and Reagan administrations pushed to one degree or another. In the Middle East, Bush’s modus operandi was to play countries off of each other, never letting one gain too much power over another.

His policy was a failure. Ironically, it is his son who must deal with the situation left by the father. To be fair, Clinton made the situation worse. As he did in many areas of policy, image and symbolism triumphed over substance and haphazard reactions substituted for well-planned policy. Some today are saying we should not respond to the terrorist attacks. This, in fact, is what we did in the Clinton years. There was no reaction to the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole nor to the attempted terrorist action thwarted at the Washington-Canadian border last year. In the case of the bombing of the U.S. Embassies in Africa, Clinton responded by bombing a legitimate pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan and empty dust and dirt in Afghanistan and called it good. It didn’t even really take our minds off the Monica Lewinsky affair, which may have been his ultimate goal as much as preventing future terrorist attacks

If terrorism emanating from the Middle East is to be significantly reduced, we must finally push for the liberalization of those countries which remain saddled with the economies and political systems of the 19th centuries. That is to say, all countries in the Middle East must change. For all the laments of problems in Africa one hears in the media, sub-Saharan Africa has seen far more economic and political liberalization than the Middle East. Other than Israel, not one democracy exists in the Middle East (Israel, of course, has its own failings). It is no coincidence that the region is a breeding ground for discontent and terrorism.

Abandoning the promotion of human rights has been a failure. When countries commit acts beyond the pale, such as the Taliban has against women in Afghanistan or Iran did in its death decree against Salman Rushdie, the rest of the world endangers itself by not working strenuously to stop these acts. In the short run, there will be some instability in countries in which we promote economic and political liberalization but in the long run we will be far safer.

Osama Bin Laden is a wealthy man of education. Many of his followers come from impoverished and oppressed circumstances. They live in countries where they have no hope to fulfill dreams and ambitions. Only small oligarchies have economic, social and political power in these lands. It is no wonder that radicalism and dissent flourish in that region. Where there is no hope, there is only desperation and desperate measures. While ultimately the blame lies with the leaders of those countries for the authoritarian regimes, the United States has aided and abetted their continuation. In some countries elections would lead to the election of radical fundamentalists. But their power would be constrained somewhat by the reigns of governmental power. It would also be easier to hold them accountable than when they are in the form of stateless, roving terror gangs.

If the world is truly serious about ending terrorism (at least radical Islamic terror, for the moment we’ll ignore eco-terrorists, anti-abortion terrorists, animal rights terrorists, etc.), then the most important step we can take is to begin promoting democratization and economic liberalization in the Middle East.