Anniversaries, especially somber ones, are customarily times for introspection. We remember the painful past, take stock of the present and reflect on the future. Honoring the past helps keep us human. Considering the future is meant to help keep us alive.
By extraordinary coincidence, this week marks the anniversaries of two pivotal events in what has emerged as the central drama of our time, the war on terrorism. One is the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization on September 13, 1993. The other is the second anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001. Understanding these two events and how they brought us to our current situation ought to be a central preoccupation of public discussion these days. Sadly, we’re getting a lot more remembrance than stock-taking. We seem intent on learning the past only so we can repeat it.
The relationship between the two events is complex. One was a peace accord between two warring peoples, signed amid much fanfare on the White House lawn and exciting worldwide hopes of an end to decades of war and terrorism. The other, eight years later, brought the full weight of Islamic terrorism to America’s shores and turned the simmering conflicts of the Middle East into a world war of sorts.
We mark the two anniversaries this year in an atmosphere of deep gloom. The hopes of 1993 lie in ruins. The devastation of 2001, which seemed to represent a bottom point from which we could only go up, has proved only a way station on a descent into hell.
The lesson most often drawn from these two events is the theme continually sounded by the political conservatives who hold sway in Washington and Jerusalem. The solution to terrorism, they tell us, is to attack the terrorists wherever they may be found. Never negotiate. Never compromise. Never seek to understand, much less redress, any “root causes” that might have led terrorists or the populations in whose name they speak to the point of despair where they would abandon all human decency. No — only strike, and strike again, and yet again, until the terrorists are dead or ready to surrender. Do whatever it takes, as the leaders of both nations are fond of saying, to “protect your population.”
It seems entirely to have escaped the attention of our leaders that their strategy of striking out blindly has done nothing to protect us or make us safer. The more they strike, the angrier and bolder the terrorists grow. Israel has been seeking a “victory” against terrorists for three years, and its streets only grow bloodier. America has been pursuing a “victory” against terrorists for two years, and now finds itself bogged down across the globe.
The real lesson of the last decade is that blunt, unilateral force is virtually useless as a tool for defeating terrorism. Unless it’s matched by progress toward solving those “root causes” — coupled with tough-minded defensive measures, like fences and properly funded police, of the sort our leaders too often shy away from — it will only prolong the pain. And pain, as this week’s anniversaries and explosions remind us, is something we’ve had too much of.