Twenty years after 9/11, the value of human life and support for the common good plummets in America’s foreign policy discussions.
The images of Afghan men falling from the sky during the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last month conjured up a memory for some Americans as the country reflects on what has changed in the twenty years since the 9/11 attacks.
Zaki Anwari, a member of the Afghanistan’s national youth football team, and Fada Mohammad, a young dentist, were among the people who made it through the desperate thousands gathered at Kabul airport trying to get out of the country as the Taliban took over by force. But when these men didn’t make it inside the planes, they climbed onto the wheel well and plunged to their deaths as the planes took off.
Some observers instantly drew the connection to what happened in New York City at the World Trade Center in 2001, when people made the leap into the ultimate liminal space, the one between life and death, looking to escape the rising flames and smoke of crumbling Twin Towers. Twenty years later, people were seeking to escape a collapsing country and their fears of repression, after so much blood and treasure were spent to build something to counter the extremism that attacked America.
A few of these commentators simply took note of the similarities of two events on opposite ends of two decades, but others used it as an opportunity to advance their pre-cooked arguments about U.S. foreign policy, typically centered on the binary choice of the U.S. military staying or leaving foreign lands, ignoring the broader debate to be had about the long-term strategic and moral implications of America’s defeat in Afghanistan.
The thinness of the Afghanistan debate in America represented a country that in many ways is in a moral free fall in its foreign policy debate, dominated by a growing gated community mindset and a narrow partisan tribalism masquerading as deep strategic thinking.
Never mind that a group just seized power using violence and intimidation to advance a regressive values agenda aimed at taking Afghanistan backwards not just 20 years but well beyond to an imaginary past more than a thousand years ago. Never mind the claims of analysts, advocates, and policymakers that there was no “military solution” to the war in Afghanistan – the Taliban had a military solution to advance its agenda. It was time to move on.
This week was filled with retrospectives examining the twenty years since 9/11 from many different perspectives. But despite the best efforts of editors and thought leaders across the nation, there will be no coherent retrospective on America’s past two decades in part because there’s none to be had.
America’s actions during this period have been contradictory, and it’s hard to draw a clear picture. Today, America remains economically strong, even though those material benefits aren’t shared equally. America’s national spirit, by contrast, is weak and beset by many divisions, producing a moral isolationism.
In America’s own national debate, the names Zaki Anwari and Fada Mohammad almost certainly will go the way of Aylan Kurdi’s, the two-year-old boy who drowned in 2015 while fleeing with his family from Syria’s conflict. Like the wars in Syria and Yemen, Afghanistan will likely move to the sidelines in America’s debate. But the moral rot will persist unless we seek to have a different debate than the one we’re having.
Something deeper and more elemental has occurred inside of America. America’s passive and divided reaction to defeat at the hands of a band of religious extremists is like an MRI scan, exposing deeper problems with contemporary America’s values and what it stands for in practice. And one thing that is increasingly devalued is human life.
Too often, “respect for life” has been understood as the main bumper-sticker slogan of anti-abortion activists here in the United States. But this usage is too narrow for the spirit and essence of a phrase that ought to be applied to how we view situations in faraway lands like Afghanistan and Syria – and closer to home as well. Look at the past year and a half:
Record gun violence killed nearly 20,000 Americans in 2020, more than any other year in at least two decades, and murders in 2021 are on pace to top last year.
A further 24,000 Americans died by suicide with a gun.
The opioid epidemic continues to plague America, with death rates still at record highs.
Last but not least, COVID-19 pandemic deaths in America – with 650,000 people dead and mounting, our country still has divisive debates about masking and vaccines.
Indifference and fatalism seem to reign at the top of America’s national debate in 2021.
But if there is any saving grace, it’s that some Americans seem to recognize the need to reject the moral isolationism at home and abroad by taking action. See for example, the groups of veterans who undertook risky missions to bring Afghan allies to safety during the botched withdrawal last month. On U.S. foreign policy, there are still voices ready, willing, and able to debate issues outside of the shallow confines of a sectarian and reductionist discussion fixated on criticizing different foreign policy camps.
The current free fall in America’s foreign policy debate isn’t inexorable. But it will require more people to look beyond the current narrow confines of our politics and remember that one of the best ways to value the lives lost is to think more broadly about the global common good and for new ways to save lives and advance values in the coming years.