History-Free 9-11 Tributes

Sometimes it’s difficult to bear the 20th anniversary “tributes” and “commemorations” of the September 11th terrorist attacks currently splashing all over every kind of media.  It seems everyone has their own riveting 9-11 story to tell whether they were in Manhattan or watching it on TV in Wyoming.

One way or another all these shows are a form of “entertainment” and offer a kind of terror voyeurism while doing their level best to avoid making any effort toward understanding the meaning of the 9-11 attacks as a product of history.  It has only been 20 years, but the history that led up to the attacks might as well be as foreign to most Americans as the War of 1812.

It’s not surprising that television producers don’t want to grapple with the historical context of the 9-11 attacks. They prefer to cover the story as if it were a natural disaster, like a hurricane or an earthquake, a force of nature coming from nowhere and victimizing an innocent nation that was just minding its own business before a totally unexpected “evil” force appeared.

George W. Bush’s message to the nation was that the “evildoers” attacked the Pentagon (the seat of American military power) and the Twin Towers (the seat of American financial power) for no reason other than because they “hate our freedom,” which even sounds dumb today at a time when our collective, pervasive dumbness is swallowing us whole.

During this 20th anniversary period of soppy pseudo-contemplative “tributes” to the memory of 9-11 we should at least remind ourselves about the origins of Al Qaeda and why the U.S. went into Afghanistan in the first place.

In 1998, President Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asked by a correspondent from the French magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, if he had any regrets about arming religious fanatics from all over the Arab world and sending them into Afghanistan to fight “jihad” against the Soviet Union: “What is more important in world history?” he replied. “The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?  Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

A few years after Brzezinski’s boast, nineteen of these “agitated Muslims,” fifteen of whom were from Saudi Arabia (the U.S.’s closest ally in the Arab world) launched an intricately-planned hijacking-suicide operation aimed to kill and maim as many Americans as possible.

Why did they do it? (That’s the question that Americans seem determined never to ask themselves, let alone answer.)

What you will not hear from any of these “commemorations” of 9-11 is that the attacks were directly related and inextricably connected to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The hijackers didn’t choose Switzerland as their target. And, what’s more, they told us at the time why they did it.

So where did Al Qaeda come from?

In the summer of 1979, President Carter, under heavy criticism for his failed Iran policies and under the heavy influence of his Polish hardline national security adviser, signed an intelligence “finding” authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency to give covert financial, military, and logistical assistance to what later became known as the “mujahedeen.”

In 1979, memories of the Vietnam war were relatively fresh among national security professionals who sold their services to any administration regardless of ideology; and these bipartisan cold warriors referred to the operation as “giving the Soviet Union its own Vietnam.”

Throughout the Arab world thousands of young men regarded the Russians as atheistic “infidels” and longed to prove themselves in “jihad” against the occupiers of Afghanistan. Ironically, the Soviet Union was trying to do in Afghanistan pretty much exactly what the United States tried to do later, which was secularize the place, empower women, and modernize their society through building schools for girls and clinics.  In fact, one of the earliest guerrilla attacks that killed dozens of Russian officials and their families took place in March 1979 in Herat to stop Soviet efforts to dictate compulsory education for girls.

In the summer of 1979, during the debates within Carter’s national security council Brzezinski entertained the idea that arming the mujahideen might taunt the Soviets to invade, and he welcomed such a contingency. “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene,” he later explained, “but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

In December 1979, when the Soviet Union poured combat troops over the border into Afghanistan (at the invitation of its client in Kabul), Brzezinski and other foreign policy professionals hoped that the Soviet foray into the “Graveyard of Empires” would drain resources and preoccupy Moscow.

By the time Ronald Reagan became president the Soviet occupation had grown to over 100,000 soldiers. Afghanistan (and Nicaragua) became two fronts in the wider cold war; arming anti-communist insurgents became known as the “Reagan Doctrine.”

By the end of 1981, the mujahideen had received over $100 million in arms and assistance, mostly from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and funneled through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Cold war imperatives trumped concerns about the extremist religious ideology of what was becoming a network of stateless Islamic fanatics.

Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan administration, working with a hawkish Democratic Congress, expanded and escalated Carter and Brzezinski’s “holy war” in Afghanistan. It became the biggest and most lavishly financed CIA operation in U.S. history. High-tech weapons systems, armored vehicles, and sophisticated communications gear were put into the hands of a bunch of cutthroat religious nuts who had no love for “the West.” In addition, the CIA helped to recruit thousands of jihadists from 28 different countries and trained them in intelligence, logistics, and what we would call today terrorism.

For a decade, money and arms from the United States and Saudi Arabia flowed into Afghanistan while the CIA worked closely with Pakistani President Zia al-Haq and his ISI to work out the logistics of getting supplies over tough terrain in what grew into a major U.S. commitment.

Zia al-Haq pretended to be committed to the cold war project, while his ISI gave sanctuary to groups of jihadists that morphed into Al Qaeda. (Recall that years later Osama bin Laden’s compound was located in Pakistan not far from ISI and Pakistani military offices.) Just as the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq eventually spawned the Islamic State (ISIS), the CIA’s support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan eventually spawned Al Qaeda.

At the beginning of his second term, President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive (NSDD)-166, crafted by CIA Director William Casey. It authorized the transfer to the Afghan guerrillas and their Arab counterparts sniper rifles, explosives, TOW anti-tank missiles, and mortar targeting devices linked to U.S. Navy satellites.

In 1985, the United States supplied over $500 million in economic and military aid to the mujahideen, (more than all the previous years combined). The CIA also began outfitting the insurgents with high-tech “Stinger” anti-aircraft missiles. The shoulder-fired Stingers used automated heat-seeking guidance systems to bring down countless Soviet helicopters and transport aircraft that all but neutralized the Russian air advantage. The cost of each missile was about $35,000, and by the end of the war it was estimated the CIA had passed on to the insurgents between 2,000 and 2,500 of these weapons.

Democrats in Congress generally gave their enthusiastic blessing to the “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan, and appropriated $630 million in fiscal year 1987. These funds did not count the matching resources from Saudi Arabia. It was the largest U.S. covert operation to date, and by the end of the decade, the United States spent over $3 billion on aid and weaponry to the Afghan fighters and Arab volunteers (sometimes called “Afghan Arabs”).

By the time Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 the Russian people had already soured on the open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan. After being mauled throughout the early 1980s and losing over 10,000 soldiers, Gorbachev was able to tap into opposition to the adventure that looked like another blunder held over from the Brezhnev years. “We have been fighting in Afghanistan for already six years,” Gorbachev told a November 1986 meeting of the Politburo. “If the approach is not changed, we will continue to fight for another twenty or thirty years. . . . Are we going to fight endlessly as a testimony that our troops are not able to deal with the situation? We need to finish this process as soon as possible.”

During the winter months of 1988-89 in Afghanistan, there were a number of skirmishes between the Red Army and mujahideen guerrillas, but Gorbachev stuck to his original promise and the last of the Russian soldiers departed Afghanistan on February 15, 1989.  Like the war-loving pundits and armchair generals who attacked President Joe Biden recently for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, Gorbachev faced similar criticism from his own war-hawks inside the Kremlin.

On the day when television cameras broadcast the scene of the final Soviet commander, Boris Gromov of the 40th Army, leaving Afghanistan, CIA Director William Webster threw a party at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.  On the walls were large photographs of Afghan and Arab jihadists brandishing their Stinger missiles and standing proudly over downed Soviet helicopters and burned out tanks. Brzezinski had succeeded in giving the Soviet Union “its own Vietnam,” but the forces the CIA had unleashed in Afghanistan would soon “blowback” in the United States.

After the Soviet Union collapsed Afghanistan became quickly forgotten in the U.S.  The days of Rambo movies depicting American volunteers fighting alongside their Afghan and Arab brothers were long gone.  Both superpowers had abandoned Afghanistan to a configuration of foreign fighters and warlords who murderously vied for power. In the mid-1990s, the country slid into a vicious multi-sided civil war that most Americans knew and cared nothing about. Left to its own devices, the war-ravaged country fell into the hands of some of the most fanatical practitioners of Sharia law; a group that didn’t exist before the U.S. intervention, the Taliban.

A prelude of coming attractions occurred a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union when American authorities in New York City arrested Ramzi Yousef for blowing up a huge truck bomb inside the parking structure of the World Trade Center’s North Tower on February 26, 1993. Yousef, a Kuwaiti, had been a mujahideen volunteer who trained in a camp on the Afghan-Pakistan border. He was one of those “agitated Muslims” Brzezinski would later dismiss as nothing more than a footnote in cold war history.  (“What is more important in world history? . . . Some agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”)

After those horrific attacks there should’ve been a complete re-examination and re-evaluation of U.S. policy in the Middle East along with a sincere attempt to deal with the underlying causes of the terrorism that hit America’s shores. Instead, all we got from the W. Bush regime and the corporate media were lame-ass platitudes, machismo, and denunciations of “the Other”; all refracted through a twisted prism of American “exceptionalism.” The political elites simply refused to take seriously any grievances about U.S. Middle East policy those brown-skinned non-christian foreigners had tried to bring to our attention.

Since everyone seems to be telling their own personal 9-11 stories – which is the best way to avoid the far more important historical questions – I will share my own dumb story (for what it’s worth).

In the days leading to September 11th 2001, I was driving alone across the United States, from Ithaca, New York to Santa Cruz, California. I had all of my worldly possessions (not much) stuffed into a Ryder rental truck and I was towing behind it my 1992 Honda Civic my parents had given me. I had no credit card or debit card so I used a small wad of hundred-dollar bills to buy gas and amenities along the way.  I slept inside the truck and bought $6 showers at the Travel America places along Interstate 80.  I was thrilled to be finally going West and returning home after ten years in the northeast; I was to begin teaching that fall as an adjunct at my alma mater, U.C., Santa Cruz.

I had finally made it to San Jose after four or five days on the road (I didn’t really know the date or what day of the week it was).  I awoke the morning of September 11th, my first night back in California, only to hear NPR radio talking about the airports being closed and other emergency precautions.

My first thought was that I was hearing an Orson Welles-type “War of the Worlds” radio hoax. I had no TV so I drove over to my parents’ house and told them to turn on the TV. When I saw the smoking Twin Towers I thought of all my friends in New York City, that region I had just left after ten years. My next thought was: “Thanks Israel, you sure are a wonderful ally to have.” Followed quickly by my next thought, which was: “The U.S. is going to bomb some poor country and innocent people are going to die now.” My thought after that was of my draft-age son, Dante. I immediately started the paperwork for Conscientious Objector status for both my boys, who were 20 and 15 years old. I knew the U.S. was going to launch a big war (especially with W. Bush at the helm) and maybe even a military draft; I wanted no part of any of it.

To me the atrocity was a result of an imperial U.S. policy in the Middle East, which has been one bloody failure after another ever since August 1953 when the CIA overthrew Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. Everything that has followed has been a disaster of the United States’ own making.

In the first few days after 9-11 I was gratified to see that even the corporate media seemed to recognize the monumental nature of the event and for a time all the networks suspended commercial advertisements. For a brief minute it looked like maybe America was ready for some serious soul searching about the entire imperial project in the Middle East and all the pain and suffering it has caused to so many people.

But of course this illusion of potential self-reflection was shattered after about six days. The producers and the advertisers and the boards of directors and the shareholders and the investors and the banks and all the other suits that manage the handful of media conglomerates that form the oligopoly that is the American news media were losing money with the suspension of commercials. And the one thing that no one can ever do in America is lose money. You could imagine hearing the CEOs and CFOs yelping: “We’re losing millions of dollars!” “We’ve got to get those fucking ads back up!” And, alas, the commercial advertisements were back on the air before any reckoning about the meaning of the atrocity could even be imagined. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 became just another part of the miasma of superficial text, images, music, attractive models and cognitive dissonance of the propaganda we call “advertising.”

It’s always all about the money in America. When Mohammed Atta, from Egypt (another close ally of the U.S.), and the other conspirators were planning their hijacking they flew first-class, or “business class,” back and forth from the east coast to the west coast, getting to know the airline personnel, seeing which airports and flights were the most vulnerable. They had money and were believed to be nice wealthy Arab businessmen because they had money. They must be okay, they have money. Osama bin Laden, it was reported, spent about $500,000 on the whole operation; chump-change for a billionaire’s son. Al Qaeda ran a honey company to launder money as well as some bogus “charities.” In the weeks before the attacks some investors in Europe knowingly “shorted” stocks in American and United Airlines. Some people made a lot of money knowing in advance what was coming, (kind of like when Republican Senators trade their stock after getting secret briefings on Covid-19).

So even with such an epochal event that was constantly being compared to Pearl Harbor, the political economy of our information system still treated us as passive consumers to be shaken down for coin, instead of citizens of a republic that just experienced a unique trauma. After all, weren’t our tax dollars about to be wasted on a bunch of new wars? Shouldn’t we have a say?

Now, sitting in front of the boob tube I would one minute see volunteers and firefighters removing human remains from the smoking festering ruins of “ground zero,” only to see the next minute a commercial for “Hot Pocket” microwave pizza snacks. The inhumanity of the terrorist attacks; the gravity and enormity of the destruction; the shock of seeing people jumping out of buildings; the twin towers collapsing in a giant cloud of pulverized debris that engulfed the nation’s most iconic city, were all now completely trivialized behind a wall of stupid TV commercials. “And now, This . . . “

And it got worse.  Only days after 9-11, I caught on C-SPAN an erudite panel of mighty intellects discussing the catastrophe who were deeply concerned about our nation. And who do you suppose was on that panel opining about the meaning of the terrorist attacks? Why it was none other than Henry-fucking-Kissinger! And that was the moment when I fully realized that America would never learn a goddamned thing from 9-11 or any other event we call “history.”

So, why did they attack us?

Well, one reason Al Qaeda told the world shortly afterward was the stationing of U.S. troops inside Saudi Arabia. It didn’t matter if the Saudi regime “invited” them in or not (Al Qaeda hated the Saudi theocracy for being a corrupt tool of “the West”). Many Muslims consider the Arabian Peninsula a holy place, and with Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia the holiest. “Crusader” soldiers on their soil, they said, was one reason.  Another reason was the devastatingly cruel economic sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Iraq. In the 1990s, it was estimated that a half-million Iraqi children met their early, preventable deaths because of these sanctions. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said that the cost of those children’s lives was “worth it” because it served the U.S. foreign policy objective of undermining the Saddam Hussein regime.

Another reason they gave at the time was the entrenched, perennial conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. They cited the brutality of the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands and its violation of the same international laws the U.S. always claims to be upholding in the Middle East and elsewhere.

They also mentioned the “petrodollars” and how that made Saudi Arabia a guilty party in the perpetuation of an unjust economic system that served the United States Treasury and American banks far more than it did the impoverished Arab masses. They also didn’t like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt because they saw him as a tool of the Americans and a repressive tyrant, which he was (remember all that “Arab Spring” hype we heard about in 2011?). Also, they said they didn’t like all the U.S. military bases encircling the Persian Gulf and the Arab Peninsula; and they didn’t like the 88,000 tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Iraq in 1991.

Martin Luther King, Jr. used to say that riots and violence are the cries of people who have been silenced and want to be heard; people who’ve been told for years their lives don’t matter. Al Qaeda wasn’t only a monster the U.S. helped create, it was a monster that wanted to be heard.

It’s easy and obfuscatory to say the terrorists were just a bunch of “evildoers” who “hate our freedom,” or “religious zealots and fanatics” who hate our libertine culture – these labels strip them of any politics, deny them agency, and thereby remove them from history. But all these “tributes” and “commemorations” twenty years later, no matter how shmaltzy or apolitical, illustrate that they did have agency and were historical actors.  No one ever wants to acknowledge that Al Qaeda’s rage and ideology had an anti-imperialist edge to it.