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Prior to the 9/11 attacks, The Future of Freedom Foundation was publishing articles warning that the U.S. government’s deadly and destructive interventionism in the Middle East would likely end up producing a retaliatory terrorist attack on American soil. We weren’t the only ones. The noted analyst Chalmers Johnson’s excellent book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, which was published before the 9/11 attacks, warned the same thing.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to make such a prediction. In 1993, there was a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. When one of the terrorists in that attack, Ramzi Yousef, was arrested and brought back for trial to the United States, he angrily told the federal judge at his sentencing hearing that he had been motivated by the massive deaths that the U.S. government had been inflicting in the Middle East.
The 1993 terrorist attack on the WTC was followed by the terrorist attacks on the USS Cole and on U.S. embassies in East Africa. When Osama bin Laden issued his pre-9/11 fatwa against the United States, he cited U.S. interventionism, not hatred for America’s freedom and values and not a quest to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate, as his motive for declaring war on the United States.
None of this caused U.S. officials to change course. In conscious disregard of the likely consequence of a major U.S. attack on American soil, they continued their policy of wreaking death, destruction, and humiliation in the Middle East.
A new official enemy
Thus, there is no way that U.S. officials could have been surprised by the 9/11 attacks. But they now had their new official enemy — terrorism — and, to a certain extent, Islam — that they used to replace “godless communism.” They now had their justification for another several decades as a national-security state, with its ever-growing power, influence, and tax-funded largess. Their “war on terrorism” was certain to be longer-lasting than their 45-year “war on communism.”
They then used the 9/11 attacks to justify their attack on Afghanistan and then, a year later, their attack on Iraq. As FFF was pointing out, however, those invasions and occupations were only going to add fuel to the interventionist fire that had been lit before 9/11. The invasions and occupations would end up killing, destroying, and humiliating people on a continuous basis, which would bring endless anger and rage, which, in turn, would mean a constant threat of terrorist retaliation. As I stated several times, the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were the greatest terrorist-producing machine in history. With each new person that U.S. officials killed in those two countries, ten more family members, friends, or countrymen became motivated to retaliate.
What is amazing is that there was absolutely no indignation or anger among interventionists for the U.S. government’s role in bringing about the 9/11 attacks. After all, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, it was possible to condemn both the 9/11 attacks and the interventionist foreign policy that brought them about.
That was our position here at FFF. Our position was to put out a big reward for the arrest and conviction of bin Laden and not to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, which would end up killing countless people who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. We also warned that the invasions and occupations of those countries would inevitably bring a crackdown on civil liberties of the American people, like with the USA PATRIOT Act.
Killing in wars of aggression
That brings up the role of U.S. soldiers in those two invasions. Let’s begin with Iraq, because it is easier to see what happened to U.S. troops in that country.
As everyone knows, Iraq never attacked the United States or even threatened to attack the United States. That means that the U.S. government was the aggressor in that conflict. Iraqi forces were always the defending power in that war. The Iraqi people were always defending their country against an unlawful aggressor.
President George W. Bush justified his invasion of Iraq by citing supposed plans by Saddam Hussein to attack the United States with weapons of mass destruction. An alternative justification cited by Bush was that Saddam Hussein was violating UN resolutions regarding WMDs. Still a third justification was to bring freedom to the Iraqi people. It was like an invasion cafeteria, one in which U.S. soldiers were free to select their own personal justification for killing Iraqis and destroying their businesses, homes, and infrastructure.
The problem is that Bush’s first justification was a lie. This was later confirmed when no WMDs were found in Iraq. If Bush had been telling the truth, he would have apologized profusely for his mistake and ordered U.S. forces to return home. Instead, when it became clear that no WMDs were going to be found, U.S. forces were ordered to remain in Iraq, where they continued killing people and destroying the country for several more years.
The problem with Bush’s second justification was that only the UN had authority to enforce its own resolutions. The United States certainly was the most powerful member of the UN, but that didn’t mean that it had the legal authority to unilaterally enforce UN resolutions.
The problem with Bush’s third justification was that under international law, the United States was prohibited from invading another country for the sake of bringing “freedom” to the citizenry of that country. In fact, that sort of war was condemned as a war crime at Nuremberg. Moreover, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, the many people who would be killed as part of such a war would not experience the “freedom” that U.S. forces were supposedly bringing to the country.
There is another factor to consider in all this — the U.S. Constitution, which requires a congressional declaration of war before the president can order his army to wage war against another nation. Bush went to war against Iraq without such a declaration. That made the war illegal under our own form of government.
In the middle of the Iraqi occupation, I wrote to a Catholic priest who was a friend of mine. He was a libertarian. I asked him whether it would be permissible under Catholic doctrine for a Catholic soldier to kill Iraqis. He responded, “Absolutely not!” He said that since the U.S. government was the aggressor, no U.S. soldier could legitimately kill anyone in Iraq. I asked, “But what if a soldier is placed in a position of kill or be killed.” He responded that under God’s law, the soldier could still not legitimately kill any Iraqi, including one that was firing at him. He said that his only religious recourse would be to escape or be killed. He could not fire back in “self-defense.”
Aggression is not self-defense
Imagine a burglar who has broken into a family’s home in the middle of the night. The father discovers his existence and begins firing at him. He fires back and kills the father. He cannot later claim that he was firing in self-defense because he had no right to be inside that home.
The same principle applies to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. They never had any legal, moral, or religious justification for killing anyone because they had no right to be in Iraq in the first place. Every person they killed was killed wrongfully.
The same principle also applies to Afghanistan. Some people have tried to draw a distinction between the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but actually the principle is the same.
First of all, there was never a congressional declaration of war against Afghanistan, which made the U.S. invasion and occupation illegal under our form of government, just like with Iraq.
Second, some people claim that Afghanistan is different from Iraq because, they say, the Taliban regime “harbored” bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Therefore, they say, it was entirely legitimate for Bush to order his army to wage war against the Taliban regime.
But notice something important: They never define the term “harbor.” They simply skate over that important issue.
The U.S. government never produced any evidence that the Taliban regime knowingly participated in the 9/11 attacks or even that it had foreknowledge of the attacks and knowingly let them happen.
What actually occurred is that Bush asked the Taliban regime to extradite bin Laden to the control of the Pentagon and the CIA, where he undoubtedly would have been given the Gitmo treatment — i.e, torture and indefinite detention without trial and, perhaps ultimately, a kangaroo military tribunal that would have found him guilty and ordered his execution.
The problem Bush faced though was that there was no extradition treaty between the United States and Afghanistan. That meant that there was no legal requirement that the Taliban regime comply with Bush’s extradition demand.
Nonetheless, concerned with the fact that the United States would torture bin Laden or simply kill him, the Taliban expressed a willingness to deliver bin Laden to an independent third-party nation, where he could be guaranteed a fair trial.
Bush, the Pentagon, and the CIA were not interested in that proposal. They demanded unconditional compliance with their extradition demand. When the Taliban refused, Bush ordered U.S. troops to invade Afghanistan, an invasion in which U.S. soldiers would end up killing countless people who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
Thus, what interventionists and some liberventionists fail to realize is that when Bush alleged that the Taliban “harbored” bin Laden, what he meant by that term was that the Taliban had refused to hand over bin Laden, not that the Taliban was somehow complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
Some interventionists say that Bush was still justified in waging war against the Taliban based on its refusal to comply with Bush’s extradition demand. Of course, they are unwilling to extend their reasoning to other nations. Suppose, for example, a Cuban-American sneaks into Cuba and bombs a hotel, killing hundreds of people. He then escapes back to the United States. Cuba demands his extradition. Since there is no extradition treaty between the United States and Cuba, and since the terrorist is a prominent and influential citizen, U.S. officials reject the extradition demand. Cuba then invades the United States in an effort to kill or capture the terrorist, killing hundreds or thousands of Americans in the process and destroying homes, businesses, and infrastructure. Would interventionists say that Cuba has the legitimate authority to invade and occupy the United States and kill American citizens and destroy property in the process? I think not.
The power of conscience
When a serial killer murders people, there appears to be no guilt or remorse. It’s as if the killer has no conscience or as if his conscience is so deeply submerged as to be of no consequence.
While there are certainly soldiers within the U.S. military who didn’t give a second thought to killing Afghans or Iraqis, the fact is that most soldiers are just like the rest of us. They are regular people. They have families. They go to church. They enjoy hobbies. They have consciences.
Even though U.S. soldiers were given a smorgasbord of justifications from which to choose to justify their killing of Afghans and Iraqis, a fully operating human conscience cannot be so easily fooled. When a regular person wrongfully kills another person, his conscience begins eating at him like an acid.
If the soldier, however, has been persuaded on the conscious level that he was justified in killing his victims, he becomes tormented without being able to figure out why. On the conscious level, he is made to feel proud for “defending America from the terrorists.” On the subconscious level, his conscience is telling him that he has engaged in the wrongful killing of people.
When he goes to a therapist, the therapist gets the analysis all wrong. He tells his patient that he’s a hero who simply is suffering from PTSD. Thus, the soldier is never made to confront the true cause of his torment — guilt over his wrongful killing of other human beings.
Throughout the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, many Americans played their role in this process by constantly thanking the troops for “their service.” Airlines would give soldiers preferential treatment for what they were doing in Afghanistan and Iraq. Church ministers would exhort their congregation to “pray for the troops, especially those in harm’s way,” rather than pray that they be returned before having to kill one more person.
For soldiers to recover from what they did in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is necessary for them to confront the fact that they wrongfully killed multitudes of people. Only by acknowledging what they have done and dealing with it honestly, directly, and forthrightly can true recovery take place.
By the same token, it is imperative that the American people engage in that same type of deep soul-searching. Only in that way can we recover as a nation.
This article was originally published in the February 2022 edition of Future of Freedom.