The following is a guest post by Jason Torpy, President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers. He delivered the following remarks to the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers on September 11, 2011, at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, PA.
I want to open by talking about why I’m here today. 9/11 is a tragedy, not a holiday or a political platform or a reason to justify or condemn ideologies. Proper activities to mark the anniversary of a tragedy do not include media blitzes, profiteering, or recruiting. Proper activities include respect and consolation for the families of the victims, first and foremost. Also included, I think, is a solemn effort to learn from the tragedy, both the causes and our reactions. It is this latter activity that I hope to focus on today – how did we react to 9/11, how can we prevent the next 9/11, and when tragedy strikes again, how can we better react.
On 9/11 2001, 3000 people died, with thousands more injured. This was a coordinated series of 4 hijackings by 19 Al Qaeda operatives. In the dismay of such a large attack on US soil, the institution of patriotic, xenophobic, religious, and militaristic fervor instilled in the population by our leaders has resulted in a decade of wars and the degeneration of a century of American goodwill around the world. Everyone knows these basic, terrible facts. I fought in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. For over a year, I served with the Army’s 1st Armored Division first holding Baghdad and then moving south to quell a political Shi’i uprising. Even then, I had questions about deploying. My motives were simple: To help the Iraqi people rebuild from our invasion and the removal of Saddam Hussein.
Many other people — soldiers, leaders, voters — had many other purposes in mind: a Christian crusade to convert Muslims, a corporate push to seize Middle East oil, a breakup of a terrorist stronghold, a defensive action to stop a nuclear attack, an imperialistic expansion of western dominance, simple vengeance, and even blind, stupid politics. On Big Think, David Ropeik, a Harvard instructor specializing in risk and fear recently wrote, “The war in Iraq was possible only because the American public was afraid.” All those reasons, in some combination, were held by all the soldiers in Iraq and the leaders that sent soldiers to Iraq. All those reasons were in the minds of American allies, American enemies, and of the people we were supposedly trying to liberate.
But were any of those reasons valid? I don’t have the answers, but as we continue these wars and consider the next war, in Libya, or Somalia, or Egypt, or Iran, or Russia, or China, I hope we reject corporate interests, imperial interests, and most of all fear and vengeance. Some people say proudly that they are already against the next war. Can we rest comfortably in a cocoon of pacifism, ignoring cries for help from the oppressed, calls for support from our allies, and threats of violence from those who would do us harm? When we have humanitarian and purely defensive goals, military action is sometimes the only recourse in a violent world. Silent protests, airlifts of food, diplomatic action, and NGOs are part of the toolset, but, war is also an option.
Invasion of Afghanistan was the immediate response to 9/11, barely a month after the attacks. The Afghanistan war has always been on a smaller scale, always been more closely related to the 9/11 attacks, and always been easier to label as a purely defensive action intended to root the terrorists out of their home in Taliban territory. In fact, my original order to Iraq was not for Operation Iraqi Freedom, but rather as an extension of Operation Enduring Freedom, the Afghanistan War operation. The character of that war and its continuance provided the military and political foundations for expansion of military action into Iraq. The expansion into Iraq also carried an expansion from national defense to more questionable goals and outcomes.
As we reflect on 9/11, we pause to remember the thousands who died. As atheists and humanists, we know that they are gone in the literal sense, but we can focus on their legacy and what we, the living, can learn from their lives and deaths. We the living will shape the legacy of those lost in the 9/11 attacks. We the living may grow from tragedy or perpetuate tragedy. Our reactions as a nation have resulted in over 6000 US dead in continuing wars, as well as those dead from coalition forces. The smallest estimates put civilian casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars at well over 100,000. The near term economic cost of the 9/11 attacks were about one hundred billion dollars in lost GDP and rebuilding costs. The cost of war is impossible to pin down but is certainly well over a trillion dollars. Add to that cost the eradication of American goodwill around the world, the expansion of Executive war authority, and loss of freedoms due to the Patriot Act. Everyone should think very hard about whether they would trade those costs for another 9/11.
Last month, the International Humanist & Ethical Union held their triennial World Congress with a focus on Peace. As representative from the US Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, I presented on humanists in military service. One key argument I made was the influence that we, as rationalists, skeptics, humanists, and ethical atheists, can bring to both Jus in Bello and Jus Ad Bellum, that is the entry into Just War and the execution of war in a just manner. As humanists, we have the opportunity to promote humanitarian rather than vengeful reaction to terrorism and tragedy. I can’t say what the right response was to 9/11. I can’t say whether invasion of Afghanistan, invasion of Iraq, or the continuance of either of those wars for so long was necessary to defend the United States. I can’t help but wonder if the forces of terrorism could withstand a trillion dollars of roads, schools, and hospitals.
It is easy to fall into the animosity of “us and them,” but humanity is not so diverse. In viewing a picture of the Earth taken by a space probe as it left the solar system, Sagan saw a pale blue dot. About this pale blue dot that was Earth, Sagan said,
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
This means that even in the face of tragedy, when the world swells from a pale blue dot to a monstrous and frightening eye of pain and misery, we must remember that we are all in this together. With all of our differences and fears and hurts and desires, we must see people as people, equal in worth and dignity. Even when we take up arms in order to free the oppressed from tyrants, it must be to bring us closer together and not merely to punish and destroy our brothers and sisters who may look different and live far away.
We humanists have no monopoly on morality. It is absolutely essential that we join hands with those Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other spiritual persons who identify more with a supernatural element to the world. This is important not least because we are brothers and sisters on this planet. For some humanists, our ideological commitment to naturalism and reason puts us at odds with adherents of various religions. It becomes easy and even comfortable to hold up those events of 9/11 as proof of the universal evils of religion. We cannot look at radical, violent religious extremism and call it mainstream religion. We have friends, family, co-workers, and even fellow townspeople who show the positive face of religion. Why exploit this tragedy to build bigger walls between us?
We should see this as an opportunity to reach out to those who have felt the deep despair of fellow humans doing evil, especially fellow humans who claim the same ideology. Whether by taking solace in a higher power or through a naturalistic and humanistic perspective, we all mourn in our own way. We can reach out and hold hands in order to understand the tragedy of 9/11 and to eliminate its causes. We can join hands to rise up against intolerance, religious division, and violent extremism. We can stand as allies in our goal of peace and unity, even if we draw our inspiration from different sources. We can console the victims and those closest to victims even better if we do so as partners without rancor and divisiveness.
But there are still those with a different agenda who will promote violence, condone the attacks as justified, look for conspiracies under every rock, or try to place blame on all those who carry labels like “Muslim” or “believer” or who have faces or skin colors similar to those of the hijackers. Will we join together against those who are different, or will we join together with those who seek peace? Will we seek out allies who seek peace, or will we seek out enemies to blame and to ostracize and to kill?
I hope that we can all keep in perspective that we are brothers and sisters on what Sagan called this pale blue dot. In the face of tragedy, I hope that our differences become smaller, not larger. As we consider military options, we should do so in order to free people from suffering, not to seek vengeance or to destroy enemies. We must ask ourselves hard questions about how we have reacted to the one great tragedy of 9/11. Have the wars, legislation, foreign policy, and cultural shifts in the United States been for the better or for the worse? If for the worse, then we can start today to change for the better. Solutions and salvation will only come from us, and can only be better when we respect our diversity and work together. We say that we will never forget 9/11. My hope is that we will continue to learn from 9/11.