In those first harrowing hours after planes were turned into bombs on September 11, 2001, people across the country were paralyzed with fear. Few people alive 20 years ago had experienced an attack on American soil anything close to this magnitude.
In those first moments of desperation and panic, people sought some way to understand what had happened and how we might respond. Many politicians, academics and media commentators—and even some faith leaders—vented their rage in calls for revenge. Within days, we got the answer. President George W. Bush announced that the United States would “rally the world” against terrorism. He would answer this horrific crime by taking the world to war.
But outside of the White House, another answer was already emerging.
Within hours of the attacks, anti-war campaigners, racial justice and environmental activists, women’s and labor movement veterans were calling each other, convening small meetings and planning protests against the stampede to war.
Small scattered demonstrations erupted within the first week, and the first national call went out for a protest in New York a couple of weeks later. An extraordinary group came together to say “our grief is not a call for war” and announced the creation of 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. They all had lost loved ones in the attacks.
At the Institute for Policy Studies, our office near the White House was being evacuated several times a day, so a small group of us assembled in the living room of our cofounder Marcus Raskin. A former White House official during the Kennedy administration, Marc had first coined the phrase “the national security state.”
Many of us knew too well that the military assaults that so often were the state’s response to global crises always made them worse, not better. We knew that the immediate response now would be to go to war—probably first in Afghanistan, but by no means only there.
And we knew that war would fail.
It would fail to achieve justice, fail to liberate women, fail to bring democracy to impoverished and oppressed Afghans, and fail to prevent future terrorism. Even before the war began, we knew it would not be waged to accomplish those things. This war was designed to legitimize popular support for an even broader global war.
We knew we needed to fight differently—for justice, not revenge.
We joined with longtime IPS board members Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover and the editors of YES Magazine to mobilize a different response. We reached out to activists, actors, artists, academics, and faith and business leaders who knew, even in those first frightening days, that this rush to war was wrong.
Our call for “Justice Not Vengeance” was signed by over 100 people—including civil rights veteran Rosa Parks, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s, public intellectual Edward W. Said, and feminist icon Gloria Steinem—and published around the world. The statement foresaw that “a military response would not end the terror. Rather, it would spark a cycle of escalating violence, the loss of innocent lives, and new acts of terrorism.”
We noted that “although the terrorist acts of September 11 were aimed at the United States, citizens of over 50 nations are counted among the victims.” And we recognized, “Our best chance for preventing such devastating acts of terror is to act decisively and cooperatively as part of a community of nations within the framework of international law to root out terrorism and work for justice at home and abroad.”
We warned of the danger that the attacks might be used to undermine our rights at home as well. “The laws that protect our civil liberties and freedoms in the United States,” we wrote, “must not be abridged; to do so would offer victory to those who wrought these vengeful acts.”
We were right—and we weren’t alone.
While 88 percent of people in the United States supported the war in the beginning, many still supported the call for justice. “I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States,” warned Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only member of Congress to vote against authorizing the war in Afghanistan. “As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.’”
Opposition continued to spread across the country and around the world, even as the Pentagon’s bombers and Special Forces destroyed the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans who had nothing to do with 9/11. And as Bush’s “Global War on Terror” moved on to wreak even greater destruction in Iraq, the protests rose as well—culminating in the largest anti-war mobilizations the world had ever seen in 2003.
Support for all the wars fell, until now, 20 years later, huge majorities believe the wars were not worth fighting, and want them ended. Those of us still calling for an end to war are no longer an isolated minority.
Two decades later, the human and financial costs of the global war on terror are rivaled only by the opportunities lost.
Our IPS colleagues at the National Priorities project have calculated that the United States has spent over $21 trillion on wars, the military, and the national security state since 9/11. That money should have been used for health care, climate, jobs, and education in the US—not for war around the world. It should have been used for health care and development for Afghans, Iraqis, Somalis, and so many others too, rather than them having to suffer decades of war.
To make sure we can fund those things, and to make sure we stop killing people around the world, we need to cut the military budget. If we cut it in half we’d still be spending more than China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—combined. And we need Congress to stop authorizing presidents to wage illegal wars.
Representative Lee’s lone vote against Bush’s war 20 years ago should be a model for every congressperson and every voter. Her example is worth following even now: Lee has recently introduced bills to repeal the 2001 war authorization and to cut military spending by $350 billion annually.
And we need to keep protesting. In 1975, after the US war in Vietnam ended, the Pentagon complained about what it called the “Vietnam syndrome.” For 15 years, public opinion maintained huge anti-war majorities, enough to force Congress to cut military spending, prevent the widespread deployment of US troops, and even to make some military actions illegal.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for the “9/11 syndrome” to kick in. It’s time to stop the wars.