On September 11, 2001, I woke up in my college dorm in the New York City suburb of Yonkers. I’d gone through orientation and now was starting my first week of classes. I can’t remember if my two roommates were in the room with me or not – I vaguely remember being alone in the room but cannot be sure. Suddenly, the phone (a landline) rang. “A plane just hit the World Trade Center!” my mother was screaming frantically. “There is going to be a war!” The first human reaction to bad news is usually denial, and I urged her to calm down, unable to believe that such as horrid occurrence could be anything but accidental. Then, the phone went dead. When I tried to call her back, I couldn’t get through.
I put my shoes on and ran outside. Students at my college were not early risers; the earliest classes of the day began at 9:30 a.m.; most did not begin until 11. An eerie stillness pervaded the campus as I ran to the main administrative building, a gorgeous converted house. Geraldine, the stern receptionist who was always on duty, gestured for me to go down the basement, where a television had been turned on. There, I saw the reporting of the horrific scene unfolding a mere twenty miles away from where I stood. Along with millions across the world I watched as the second plane hit the second tower. In an instant the world I knew was changed forever.
The rest of that day and indeed the next weeks were a whirlwind of sorrow and confusion. I remember hanging around the campus, sitting on the main green lawn and eating fancy hors d’oeuvre originally prepared for a fundraising event that day. I remember the sorrow in my new literature professor’s face: “Such an act could only be done by people who have reduced the world to symbols. I remember George W. Bush angrily vowing to “hunt down” the perpetrators of the act.
I remember seeing shop window signs that declared “Wanted: Osama Bin Laden for Mass Murder in New York City.” I remember being confused as my country geared up to attack another country where none of the 9/11 hijackers had come from. I remember researching the Taliban and attending a presentation in Manhattan’s Judson Memorial Church put on by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. I remember traveling by bus with one of my roommates and a group of students to join a large group of activists in marching against the war. I remember when the war happened anyway, and just one year and some months later, a second war began.
Against this backdrop I grew up, finished college, traveled the world for pleasure, moved to Canada for graduate school, and took a job in Iowa. Against this backdrop I built relationships and a career; I celebrated Christmases and went hiking during the summers. Other headlines came to dominate the news. The two wars faded into the background of my life, as they did for millions of Americans who were not directly involved. The war in Afghanistan seemed an impossible situation, a true case of “no exit.” Meanwhile, 179,390 people died violently; of them, 47,245 were Afghan civilians.
After President Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, the country came to dominate Western news again. Watching the Taliban assume control over Afghanistan, I shook my head at the horror of a twenty-year war and so much life lost for absolutely nothing. Back in 2001, peace activists and military experts alike declared that the US had no business engaging in such a war that simply could not be won. They were right. As peace activist Kathy Kelly has stated in a recent interview with The National Catholic Reporter,
I think in the U.S. people had the impression that somehow the United States was helping in terms of humanitarian issues in Afghanistan. But that’s not really true. There wasn’t a marked improvement in the basics of health care, or in terms of nutrition. Education has not been available to the majority of the people, although it did get better for young girls in in the cities.The people who really are the “winners” in all of this — and in the history of U.S. occupation and invasion — are the military contractors, the ones who manufacture the war planes and the bombs and the drones, and the Hellfire missiles and the Apache helicopters and the material for building bases and equipping soldiers. Those are the people who win in these situations.And then, of course, war isn’t over when it’s over. The trauma that ordinary people have suffered over all these years will be with them for the rest of their lives.
While I understand the long-held desire of US political leaders to withdraw from this impossible situation, its handling by the Biden administration has been nothing short of catastrophic. So many Afghans who helped the US now face an especially terrifying future; the picture for the population as a whole does not look any better.
I find it interesting and disheartening that in the public square, very few Democrats are willing to criticize Biden; instead, all blame is deflected onto his predecessor. This narrow tribalism infuriates me. The president I voted for – the leader who promised to be an ‘empathizer-in-chief’ – has let the Afghan people down. In refusing to admit even the possibility of error in his choice, he further loses credibility. Then again, leaders who second guess their choices are often perceived as weak. How I wish we could all recognize that every decision – even when one really believes it does the least of all possible harms – has a downside. How I wish we lived in a world where honestly saying “I’m sorry” was seen as a sign of strength and where digging one’s heels in and justifying oneself at all cost was seen as a sign of weakness.
In general, I agree with Biden that “nation building” and fighting other countries’ wars for them is not the place of the US. It is an anti-imperialist stance that would have been wonderful to see twenty or even ten years’ ago (or maybe sixty years ago). Leaving Afghanistan may be the correct choice, but it was done in a completely irresponsible way. Now, it is the Afghan people who stand to suffer. And we, ordinary citizens of the country that waged this war, find ourselves in the position of being able to do nothing.
Helplessness is not an easy state to endure. To that point, Tina Beattie, co-founder of the Catholic Women Speak Network, recently commented on Facebook,
We in the western democracies are tainted with hubris. It’s the ideology we are steeped in for generations. We can’t bear feeling impotent. We think we have the solutions to every problem, whether military or charity – and more often than not, we ARE the problem. So personally, I need to rest in the impotence, to let my prayers disintegrate, to avoid putting out messages which will make me feel better without doing anything at all to help those suffering, and to accept that I don’t have the power to help them. I can only experience the impotence of fumbled half-articulated prayer, and keep faith that grace is quietly set free if we try to keep our hearts free from violent and vengeful impulses, and to create a clearing for love to become. So easy to say, so trite when it’s said, and yet I believe so important.
It is hard to face the reality and consequences of failure. For me – a skeptic by nature, not unlike Thomas the Apostle – it is hard to believe in what I cannot see and touch, to hold the faith that prayer truly makes a difference.
But there are experiences in life that have the potential to bring all of us to our knees. Failure and impotence force us to embrace humility. Humility is the starting point for accepting that there is so much that lies beyond our control. When asked about the responsibilities of Catholics now, Ms. Kelly states,
I think it’s good to study everything that Pope Francis has said about war and weapons. He has called war-making futile and has asked us to lay aside our weapons. He was so blunt and clear when he spoke to the U.S. Congress, asking why anyone would give weapons to people waging wars. The answer, he said, is simple: It’s money, and the money is drenched in blood.But parishes are not necessarily hearing this message of peacemaking from the pulpit. I wish every parish could consider a Pax Christi chapter, would hold study groups to read more about issues of peacemaking. Another thing people can do is welcome refugees into their community, and learn from the refugees.
Clearly we in the US have a lot to learn. A Canadian friend once said that as a society, the US is in its teenage years. But the cost of our youthful recklessness has been extremely high, and its consequences will sadly last for generations to come. Let us pray for clarity, humility and understanding as we make sense of this experience. Let us do what we can through prayer and action, no matter how small. Let us not abandon the people of Afghanistan.