Twelve years later, we remain anxious, angry, suspicious and vengeful. The consequences of the horrific terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, reverberate still through American society. It’s not just the grimly dehumanizing experience of airport security or the weird thought that the National Security Agency is trolling through my email messages — good luck with that! — or the new rules about no bags at NFL football games. Those supposedly self-protective activities are inconvenient and annoying, but stuff we put up with in the hope that some inconvenience or even massive privacy intrusions will help catch the bad guys so as to prevent another great catastrophe.
Watching President Obama’s address about Syria last night, I felt frustrated that after all these years, all of the human sacrifice, we still cannot quite find the peace and security we so urgently desire. We have taken out terrorists and tyrants — Osama bin Laden is gone, so is Saddam Hussein. But now we have Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who sits quietly with Charlie Rose giving an interview as if he were just another celebrity on the passing scene. What has changed in a decade of waging war in the Middle East? Thousands of American troops, tens of thousands of civilian lives have all been poured out in the quest for security and peace. “Mission Accomplished” banners flew too prematurely, and the long, dangerous slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan proved costly and disappointing.
The cauldron that we call the Middle East has perplexed, daunted and defeated many powerful nations over the centuries. The conditions of tyranny, corruption, double-dealing, failed CIA escapades, arms-trading, the ongoing Russia-US superpower cold war carried out in a different guise today, poverty, religious prejudice and genuine oppression in the name of religion continue to fuel the evil acts of official rulers like Assad as well as the shadowy leaders of rogue cells of terrorism.
Can the United States put a stop to all of this? Hardly. If the last twelve years have accomplished anything, we might hope it would be a certain humility about the limits of American ability to change other cultures through sheer force. Even where the culture is dominated by a level of cruelty and violence we find hard to imagine, the engagement of American military might does little to ensure permanent improvement.
President Obama says he wants peace but may need to use the tools of war to address the horror of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the people of Syria. The moral argument in favor of action against Assad is strong and compelling. But the lessons of history are also strong and compelling. Over the last 12 years Americans have grown wary and weary of promises about solutions to the Middle East. One more military action might be a short-term solution to one egregiously awful situation, but in the end, the long-term prospects for militarily-imposed peace and security remain elusive.
Over the weekend Pope Francis led a vigil for peace in Syria, and he has issued strong appeals to the United States and other world leaders to work for a peaceful solution to the Syrian problem. Following his lead, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also appealed for peaceful solutions. Based on President Obama’s remarks last evening, it appears that a diplomatic solution is, at least for now, possible. Let’s pray that this possibility becomes a reality. Praying for peace is the best way to observe September 11.