Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Thoughts on a Tragedy
On the anniversary, I feel like writing something about 9/11. This will have nothing to do with surgery, or medicine. If political rants on a medical blog annoy you, please click away now.
My brother was living in NYC at the time, and had colleagues in the World Trade Center. He went to some funerals, after. At first I watched the images and wondered if he was OK, unable to get through. Like virtually every American, I was dumbstruck and horrified. And I wondered about people who hate that much, who have a sort of faith that allows such a thing as mass murder by way of suicide. I felt the world change, and indeed it did.
I had no reservations whatever about the correctness of going into Afghanistan. Aware of the Russians' failure there, and having a sense that it had at least some role in the later collapse of the Soviet Union (I'm no Russian scholar, but having studied the language for many years and traveled there in the apex of the Cold War, I have an interest), I wondered how we'd do better; but figured it needed to happen, and that war had changed in twenty years. The relative ease with which the Taliban were routed was impressive to me and to the rest of the world; and it was a humiliation to those who saw Osama bin Laden as some sort of god-like hero. Would that we had consolidated the victory and seized the opportunity to discredit their philosophy by showing how much better we are. Instead, we turned to the most disastrous foreign-policy mistake any president has ever made.
When our president made it clear he was going to invade Iraq no matter what, I thought of the words I'd heard many years earlier, from a Yugoslavian med student with whom I worked on a research project in Yugoslavia when I was in medical school. (Hey, this does have to to with medicine!) Like Iraq, that country was an ethnic mish-mash. When Tito (the autocratic leader) dies, my fellow researcher told me, this country will come apart. Hatred will bubble up and people will kill each other. He was, of course, exactly right. Even not knowing a hell of a lot, I felt sure Iraq would follow suit when Saddam went down. (Hell, even Dick Cheney said exactly that, at the end of the first Gulf War, explaining why he and George the First hadn't gone to Baghdad.)
I don't think I know -- and I'm not optimistic that history will tell us -- what the fundamental reasons were for invading Iraq. (It's amazing how little one hears about the UN inspectors that were there before we invaded. They were given, we recall, free rein. They were finding nothing. "Everyone believed there were WMDs," we keep hearing nowadays. Right. Before the inspections. But the inspectors were there.) It seems pretty clear that spreading democracy, in some messianic vision of our superior ideas, was at the center of that disastrous decision. Along with a catastrophic and inexcusable misunderstanding of what Iraq society was really about. "9/11 changed everything," we are told ad nauseum. OK, it did. But it didn't change what Dick Cheney understood back there: that invading Iraq would open a Pandora's Box. So if it was right (it was wrong, but if it was right) pre-emptively to invade another country, it's incomprehensible that our leaders didn't plan for the worst case scenario and send in more than enough troops; that they assumed after Saddam was toppled there'd be no need for security and control. If I can get sued for the death of one patient when I did everything right, how can our leaders remain in office when they did everything wrong?
I get that some think the invasion was a great idea. I can't fathom how a single person can support our leaders for how they've bungled it. And I can't see how anyone can disagree that the invasion, as it now stands, has made us less safe; in fact, that it's exactly what bin Laden would have wanted. Did you hear General Petraeus respond to a question that he couldn't say that the war has made us safer?
Think about it: you hate America, you want to inflict as much damage as is possible with the limited resources you have. You don't have an army, you need to depend on fanatics willing to blow themselves up to do what damage you can manage. Wouldn't this be perfect: get the US to invade a Muslim country that had nothing to do with 9/11, tie up hundreds of thousands of your enemy's troops, get them to spend a trillion dollars, exhaust the military; taunt them in such a way that they feel they can't leave without "losing face;" keep shooting their troops as if in a barrel; produce hatred for the US around the world, creating an endless stream of fanatics anxious to kill and be killed in the name of harming Americans. It's perfect. And there's no end in sight. Those Pakistani caves must echo with the slap of high fives.
I know that there are Islamic radicals out there who want to do us grievous harm. I couldn't agree more that it's a terribly serious problem to which we must respond in the most effective ways possible. And I haven't the slightest doubt that invading Iraq was the worst possible way to do it.
September Eleven was a horrible day for the US and for the world. It demonstrated the worst of which humans -- motivated by fanatical religious certainty -- are capable. It was a turning point. A slap in the face to every thoughtful person on the planet, it could have mobilized the world. For a while, it did. And George Bush turned it into unmitigated disaster. He multiplied the victory for al Queda beyond their wildest dreams: by invading Iraq, and with all that has evolved from it, he turned a situation that hurt us deeply but had no potential for bringing us down, into a debacle which could well spell the end of our democracy. No terrorists could destroy our country, no matter what they attack. Bush's response has the potential to accomplish what they couldn't, ever. I really believe that. The ramifications are as yet barely felt; and they are enormous.
Other than that, I think everything's hunky dory. And now you know: I'm a liberal. (Funny, isn't it? It's conservatives who ought to be the most outraged! I do believe in balanced budgets; I'm proud to have served in Vietnam; I think the US has led the world in many extremely important ways. Unlike our president, I think our Constitution is a document of surpassing brilliance, and ought to be followed; that a free and aggressive press and a balance of power are what keeps us safe from idiocracy, autocracy, and theocracy; and that they are failing us miserably of late. There are idiots to go around on both sides of the aisle in D.C.) And now that there's been a definitive study of liberal vs conservative brains, I'm happy to let the cat out of the bag.