“the world was much smaller than ever before
And over there wasn’t so far anymore
what we did unto others washed up on our shores
the answer was hard to ignore ... the end of war”
— Eric Colville, from the song “The End of War”
It’s a time for remembering. On Sept. 11, 2001, the world of terrorist violence that was always over there wasn’t so far away anymore. We will never forget, but as we remember, let us reflect on where we are now and how we got here. For it’s long past time that we honor the Americans who died that day by ending the killing of more innocent people in our Afghanistan war.
Like every American, I have vivid memories of how I first heard we were under attack. I was in a hotel lobby near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport where I had stayed overnight on my way to visit family in Denver. When checking out to catch an early morning flight, I was told the airport was closed. I returned to my room and switched on the television. Smoldering black smoke was pouring out of the Twin Towers. I would see them both collapse while making arrangements to drive a rental car from Seattle to Denver.
As I drove east on Interstate 90, I listened to the news on National Public Radio. But somewhere near Snoqualmie Pass I lost radio reception. During those anxious minutes I wondered if there would be more attacks and how our nation would respond. Would Americans being satisfied by cruise missiles attacks on terrorist camps in Afghanistan? That’s what President Bill Clinton ordered in 1998 as a proportionate response to terrorist attacks against two American embassies in Africa.
I began to sense that our country was headed for war soon after I found a new radio signal. The host of a nationally syndicated talk show was angrily calling for revenge. Then a caller upped the ante by suggesting we nuke the entire Middle East. I was stunned by the notion that, even in shock and anger, any American would be willing to contemplate unleashing our nuclear arsenal on a civilian population.
The atrocity of 9/11 begins with the fact innocent Americans were deliberately targeted by the terrorists. But there’s no doubt retaliation with nuclear weapons would have been grossly disproportionate to those attacks. We would have knowingly targeted and killed far more innocent people than the 2,977 Americans who perished.
Article 51 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions prohibits retaliation and indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations. It further prohibits attacks that “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life … which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”
In respect to this Protocol of international law, our country can’t justify any civilian collateral deaths after the first two days of bombing Afghanistan. That was when the Pentagon declared that 85 percent of the key targets had been destroyed. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even quipped to reporters “We’re not running out of targets, Afghanistan is.” America’s military advantage was unquestionable. The bombing should have ceased.
Sadly though, America is not bound by Protocol I. We are one of four countries that has signed but failed to ratify the 1977 addition to the original Geneva Conventions. Along with Iran, Pakistan and the Philippines, we are like a renegade defying 171 nations around the world.
And we continued bombing Afghanistan. Between October 2001 and March 2002, U.S. planes dropped approximately 20,000 munitions on one of poorest counties on earth. There’s been no definitive count of the civilians killed as a result, but estimates by range from 1,200 to 20,000. And after 10 years we’re still at war watching the civilian death toll grow.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 constituted one of the gravest war crimes in history. But no one in Afghanistan is a threat to us unless we continue to kill innocent people with what they consider unnecessary and disproportionate force. And if we fail to muster the courage to restrain our vastly superior military, their idea of reprisal could wind up washing the war back up on our own shores.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.