20 years of 9/11 is enough

I am done with commemorations of 9/11. I have been done with them for a very long time.

I’m going to cut to the chase here. I have never felt an emotional response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Not on the day it happened. Nor on any of the increasingly fetishized, politically and emotionally manipulative annual commemorations that we inflict upon ourselves year after year.

For me these ritualized remembrances ring hollow. Our self-pitying refrain of “no one has suffered from terrorism the way we have” smacks of the most offensive kind of American exceptionalism. We claim from societies that have long suffered from terrorism the mantle of victim-in-chief. And I am tired of it.

I know this is a sentiment that is out of step with many. 9/11 and its commemoration does not resonate with me the way that it does for others. I have always, from the moment it happened, thought about it only in academic, analytical, terms. I can tell you exactly how I came to that point.

At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, at the moment the first airliner hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center, I was sitting in my office at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., preparing to teach a class later that morning. There was an initial news report that suggested a small plane had accidentally crashed into the building, which I payed little attention to. I had no radio in my office, and when internet connectivity slowed markedly and then was lost altogether, I shrugged my shoulders and went about my work.

Then the phone rang. It was just after 10:30 a.m. and my wife, badly shaken and in tears, was calling to tell me that the towers had collapsed. And that I needed to get to a television.

I made my way to the student center, saw live images of the smoking heaps of rubble, learned that the South Tower had also been hit and fallen. And the Pentagon. And that a fourth plane had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. And it was time to go to class.

My students were, of course, full of questions. Who could have done it? Why? Will there be more attacks? Having spent a fair portion of my time in graduate school studying terrorism, I had answers.

I asked my students to consider the meaning of the target selections, symbolic representations of American economic, military, and political power. I asked them to consider the methodology of the attacks, sophisticated, well-planned, and coordinated suicide operations. Given the combination of meaning and methodology on display, I told them that the most likely perpetrators were al Qaeda, the only organization I knew of that had demonstrated the necessary capability coupled with the determination to attack American interests. Follow-on attacks, I thought, were highly likely.

We took a moment or two to refocus and gather our thoughts, and then I taught my scheduled lesson on international economic development.

By the time I got home that night, my initial speculation had been confirmed, and that, thankfully, no secondary attacks had occurred. I also found that my wife was deeply, deeply affected. Because, unlike me, she watched everything, live, as it happened. She saw the second plane hit the South Tower. She watched people leaping to their deaths to escape the intense flames. She watched lines of cops and firefighters filing into the buildings in an effort to find and evacuate survivors. And she watched those towers collapse, obliterating their lives.

I saw none of it in real time. What I saw was how the attacks had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the plotters. I saw how the golden ring that every terrorist organization reaches for, unlimited attention to themselves and their cause, was delivered by the wall-to-wall media coverage the attacks generated. Every network. Every channel. MTV. Home Shopping. ESPN. Video of the planes hitting and the towers collapsing on an endless loop. Talking heads naming al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and explaining to their audience why they would have the United States in their crosshairs. For days, and days, and days after.

This is my frame of reference for 9/11. This is how I talk about it with my students, who today are too young to have any memory of the day but who have grown up with its consequences. And what consequences.

The stoking of existential fear of terrorism by what scholar John Mueller has called “the terrorism industry” — security and defense contractors, media conglomerates, think tanks and research centers, pols and policymakers — which profits from that fear and leverages it to advance policy objectives the American public would otherwise never countenance. Like the creation of a surveillance state and erosion of our civil liberties at home. Like the abandonment of our core values and the embrace of torture and indefinite imprisonment of “enemy combatants” held without charge or trial. Like an open-ended authorization for two decades of American presidents to wage war anywhere on earth so long as they can draw a line, no matter how tenuous, to the events of 9/11 and those who carried out the attacks.

But wait, there’s more. Because 9/11 also unleashed suspicion and fear of our fellow Americans simply because of their Muslim faith. And with that fear and suspicion came discrimination, hate, and violence. That fear and suspicion led us to turn our backs on immigrants and refugees from majority Muslim countries. For many Americans, the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” became synonymous. Because of 9/11.

The celebrated unity of the first few days after 9/11 quickly gave way to division as the attacks were politicized and leveraged for partisan advantage by cynical and ambitious parties and politicians. To question the policy responses to 9/11, or to decry the discrimination and hatred directed against our Muslim neighbors, was to be unpatriotic, to undermine America, to side with and give comfort to our enemies.

We are not unique. Other countries have suffered far more from terrorism than we have. We have ignored, and continue to ignore the reality that 9/11 was the exception not the rule about terrorism in America. The rule about terrorism in America is 160 years of Americans turning their guns and bombs against fellow Americans in the name of causes deeply embedded in American culture, society, and politics.

Sept. 11, 2001 bestowed upon us no special virtue, no privileged claim of unique victimization that should have empowered us to lead a global war on terror which adversaries like China seized upon to justify genocidal campaigns against their own Muslim minorities.

And yet, in our arrogance, we did claim those things. And we did, and continue to do, all these things. And every September, on the 11th day of the month, we wrap ourselves in flags and ritually remind ourselves of our own pain and suffering while refusing to confront the consequences of our response.

That’s why I’m done with 9/11 commemoration.

This week in terrorism history: Sept. 19-26

The logo of the Puerto Rican nationalist terrorist group Fuerzas Armadas Liberacion Nacional (FALN). The slogan roughly translates to “Struggle Until Victory”

Before getting into this week’s look back, it is worth noting some terrorism news that came to light over the weekend here in Michigan.

In incidents reminiscent of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s decades-long bombing campaign against industrialization in general, and big tech in particular, two explosive devices were discovered outside cellphone stores Michigan’s Upper Peninsula late last week. According to the FBI, the devices were in USPS priority mail boxes and sealed with black duct tape. They were accompanied by threatening notes addressed to Verizon and AT&T.

The letters “CMT” were written on the outside of both boxes. The FBI and Michigan State Police believe the bombs are connected to a series of letters found last month at multiple telecommunications tower sites across the Upper Peninsula. According to the FBI the letters, signed by the “Coalition for Moral Telecommunications,” make specific demands to the telecommunications companies. No details, however, have been released.

The planting of bombs at cellphone stores is similar to two of the attacks carried out by Kaczynski. In December 1985 a Sacramento, Calif. computer store owner was killed by a nail-and-splinter bomb that Kaczynski had planted in the store’s parking lot. In February 1987, the owner of a Salt Lake City, Utah computer store was severely injured by another of Kaczynski’s bombs.

Kaczynski is currently serving eight life sentences in federal prison in Colorado. The University of Michigan Special Collections Library houses correspondence between Kaczynski and more than 400 others since his arrest.

And now on to this week’s look back to the week in American terrorism history.

  • Sept. 20, 1976 — San Francisco: The residence of the Consul General of South Africa is targeted in a bombing attack carried out by the New World Liberation Front, a small California-based militant revolutionary anti-capitalist terrorist group. No one was injured in the attack. The NWLF formed in 1970 and was responsible for nearly 90 separate attacks in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the American West between 1974 and 1978.
  • Sept. 21, 1976 — New York City: A bomb explodes on the 24th floor of the Hilton Hotel. An hour later, a caller to the New York Post claims responsibility for the bombing in the name of Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), a Puerto Rican nationalist group. In a note taped to a phone booth near the hotel, FALN stated that the blast was an attempt to protest the appearance of Rafael Hernandez Colon, the Governor of Puerto Rico, who was attending a political fund-raising dinner at the hotel. Between 1974 and 1982, the FALN carried out 120 separate attacks, mostly in New York City, Chicago and in Puerto Rico itself.

This week in terrorism history: Sept. 12-18

Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League (Credit: Southern Poverty Law Center)

Whenever I teach my course on terrorism and political violence, it has become my practice to post here a look back at the recent history of terrorism. The last time I launched this weekly series was January 2020. As I explained in an earlier take on this:

[O]ne of the points that I try to impress upon my studentsĀ is that, as a form of political action, terrorism has been around for far longer than our current post-9/11 awareness would lead most Americans to acknowledge.

In this year when we are marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks (a topic I’ll return to later in the week), I think it is especially important to give ourselves a little perspective about the extent to which terrorism has, or has not, been a part of our own country’s history. To that end, I am making a change in the source that I am going to use for each week’s installment.

In the past I have relied mainly on the counterterrorism calendar that had been produced annually from 2003-2016 and made available to the public by the National Counterterrorism Center. Unfortunately, this office, like many others, became a casualty of the flight of competent people out of government service during the Trump era and the calendar is no longer produced. Go online to look for it now, andĀ you wind up here, at a literal dead end.

One of the handicaps of that resource, however, was its fairly narrow focus on terrorist incidents targeting the United States and its friends, especially if the attacks were perpetrated by Islamist groups. In the first years after 9/11 I suppose that myopic look made some sense. But frankly, it was far too limited to give a real picture of the extent to which terrorism has been a global phenomenon fueled by a wide array of ideological motivations, not just jihadism.

The NCTC calendar also overemphasized terrorism perpetrated by transnational actors compared to our own homegrown domestic terrorists. This shortcoming misrepresents the reality of terrorism as it has historically been experienced in the United States. As I’ve written many times in this space, the story of terrorism in the United States is largely characterized by attacks on Americans, by Americans, in pursuit of goals deeply embedded in America’s social and political culture.

In short, Americans have literally been at war with America for as long as we care to remember.

So for this series of This Week in Terrorism History posts, I am relying solely on incidents compiled in the Global Terrorism Database, widely considered the gold-standard data source for academic and policy research on terrorism. Each week I will randomly select a year from 1970 to 2001 and then search for attacks for that specific week that occurred within the United States.

With that long introduction out of the way, here’s this week’s entry.

  • Sept. 14, 1972 — Los Angeles, CA: Members of the Jewish Defense League bomb the apartment of Palestinian activist Mohammed Shaath. After the bombing, the Los Angeles Times received a phone call taking responsibility for the attack. The caller signed off with the phrase “never again,” the slogan of the Jewish Defense League. The JDL claimed that Shaath was targeted because he was a member of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. No one was injured in the attack, and at least one perpetrator, Robert Manning, was convicted in the incident. He received a suspended sentence after he disavowed the JDL in the courtroom during his trial.

Yes, the Taliban has terrorists in its government (but that’s not unusual)

The Taliban announced the makeup of an interim government the other day, and what should have been to no-one’s surprise, it is made up of figures notable for their close ties to the movement’s late founder, holdovers from the last time the Taliban held power, and a host of hardliners who made their reputations during the last 20 years of insurgency.

In that mix are terrorists.

For example, Sirajuddin Haqqani is the new interim interior minister. He is the head of the Haqqani network (a US-designated terrorist organization), which has been carrying out brutal terrorist attacks across Afghanistan for the last two decades, including a 2017 truck bomb in Kabul that killed and injured hundreds of Afghan civilians. The FBI has a $10 million bounty on his head for information leading to his arrest.

Khalil Haqqani, Sirajuddin’s uncle, is acting minister for refugees. Another leader of the Haqqani network, the FBI has a $5 million bounty on him because of his past ties to al Qaeda. Four former Guantanamo Bay detainees have landed senior government positions as well. These all had been mid- to high-level officials in the old Taliban regime who were captured early in the US war. They were released in a 2014 prisoner exchange.

Interim Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund is under United Nations and European Union sanctions for his close ties to the Taliban’s founders and his role as a military commander. Interim Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar, in addition to serving as a key diplomat, was also a senior military leader coordinating attacks on US and coalition forces during the war.

So yes, the Taliban’s new acting government includes terrorists. But let’s not kid ourselves that this is somehow unprecedented. Let’s look at some examples.

Israel is perhaps the quintessential example of terrorists turned government leaders, at the highest levels. Menachem Begin, who became Israel’s sixth prime minister in 1977, assumed leadership of the Zionist terrorist organization Irgun in 1944 and was the architect of its violent campaign against British occupation of Palestine. Under Begin’s leadership, Irgun was responsible for an escalating series of attacks on government offices and police stations. The most infamous of those attacks was a direct strike against Britain’s administrative and military establishment which was based at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Begin ordered the bombing of the King David, which resulted in the destruction of a wing of the building and the killing of 91 people, mostly British, Arabs, and Jews.

In 1983 Begin was succeeded as prime minister by Yitzhak Shamir, who was himself a former terrorist, a leader of Lehi, also called the Stern Gang, a more militant offshoot of Irgun. Under Shamir’s leadership, Lehi carried out a series of assassinations including that of Lord Moyne, the British Minister for Middle East Affairs. Shamir also ordered the assassination of one of his fellow terrorist leaders, Eliyahu Giladi, the culmination of an internal dispute over strategy.

In January 1947, members of Lehi drove a truck loaded with explosives into a British police station in Haifa, killing four and wounding 140. It is thought to be the first truck bomb in the history of terrorism. A little more than a year later, in a combined operation, Irgun and Lehi terrorists staged an attack on the Palestinian Arab village of Deir Yassin. The resulting massacre left more than 100 Palestinian civilians dead, including women and children.

Northern Ireland provides yet another example of terrorists moving into the halls of government, and at the highest levels. Provisional Irish Republican Army terrorist Martin McGuinness, served from 2007 to 2017 as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. But before he moved into politics, in the 1970s he led the PIRA in his home city of Derry, later rising to head the PIRA’s Northern Command in the 1980s and a seat on the organization’s seven-member Army Council. And in another piece of delicious irony, former PIRA member Alex Maskey, having moved into electoral politics in the early 1980s, found himself some 20 years later with a seat on Northern Ireland’s Policing Board. A former terrorist overseeing the police.

And let’s not exclude ourselves from this discussion. By today’s definitions, the violent revolutionary movement that we remember as the Sons of Liberty was an anti-British terrorist organization that in the 1760s and 1770s carried out attacks against representatives of the Crown, destroyed Crown property, and assaulted and assassinated prominent loyalists in the American colonies. Many of its most notable members went on to play prominent roles in the American War of Independence and the subsequent government of the new United States.

Our patriots of the founding era, familiar names such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Samuel Chase, Christopher Gadsden, and Patrick Henry, got their start as members of or leaders in a terrorist group.

So yes, the new government of Afghanistan is loaded with terrorists. But the Taliban are far from the first to make the leap from terrorist to politician to government. As history shows, they’re just a recent example of a pattern in which we ourselves are a part.