Peter Neiger, from Students for Liberty:
As the tenth anniversary for the defining day of my generation comes upon us, it feels necessary for me to reflect on both the event itself and how we, as a nation, have responded to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The events of that day certainly had an effect on everyone in one way or another, but the degree of influence varies dramatically. Those who lost loved ones felt the sting of how violent and misguided humans can be in a way that I can never truly comprehend, and the pain from that day lives on in their memories and the repercussions that play out in their daily lives. While I did not feel the personal loss that many had, 9/11 was still a day that redirected my life.
After the second tower fell and the magnitude of what happened was only beginning to be realized, I walked into the U.S. Army Recruiter’s office in Gresham, Oregon. Coming from a conservative Christian background it seemed natural to rise up to defend my nation, one that I felt at the time had been attacked without cause. Vengeance was on my mind and in my heart. My family did not encourage or discourage my decision. They supported it but wanted to make sure that I did not feel pressure from them to serve or not. In retrospect, my parents handled it in the best possible way. Without their support and love, the next few years of my life would have been unbearable.
I volunteered to serve in an Airborne Infantry unit and was soon whisked off to boot camp, advanced training, and airborne school. When I got to my unit, I discovered I was going to get exactly what I wanted at the time. I was going to war. We were slotted to deploy to Afghanistan in early 2003. My unit deployed as scheduled and spent a lot of time in a variety of different areas of Afghanistan. Being an infantry unit, there were many times when we made the initial contact with tribes throughout the region, a duty that is potentially dangerous but provides an interesting perspective on war.
I was lucky enough to have a commander who would take younger soldiers like me to meetings with tribal leaders and local villagers. It was during these meetings that my thoughts on why we fight started to change. The attitudes and beliefs of the locals were the complete opposite of the generic “they hate us for our freedom” rhetoric that was being spewed on the local news. I went to Afghanistan expecting a nation of religious fanatics who wanted to kill me because of my birthplace, but I found a group of people who were simply trying to live their lives as best they could in peace. While certainly there were people in that country who would have loved to see me dead, the idea of “hate us for our freedom” didn’t make sense. Indeed, it can only make sense if you dehumanize the enemy.
Although Afghanistan certainly got me thinking about why we were doing what we were doing, I was still convinced it was justified. There was a group of people in that country that attacked the United States and justice should be pursued. My real mental awakening did not come until the sudden decision to use military force against Iraq.
My unit received orders to deploy to Iraq shortly after returning from Afghanistan. After about four months of time back in the U.S., we were off to war again. For this deployment we spent our time in the southern area of Iraq and did not interact with the locals as frequently, but the interactions I did have left me thinking. The Iraqis did seem to have an overall negative view of the Americans, but I still wondered why. After some talks it became apparent that the average Iraqi did not care about the freedoms in America. Rather, his anger came from America interfering in the autonomy and issues of his nation. While I was aware of the Gulf War, I was pretty ignorant about the previous influence the U.S. had on the political workings of the Middle East.
My interest had been piqued, and after leaving the military, I enrolled in college with an increased interest in American foreign policy. I was surprised at first to find out how much the United States has used assassinations, covert operations, overt operations, and trade power to force those in the Middle East to really conform to U.S. wishes. I began to realize that the dislike of America in that region might be justified. This certainly does not excuse the attacks of 9/11. I still believe that those murderers conducted a heinous act that is morally reprehensible in every way. However, a motive started becoming clear.
During that time I was also starting to notice the country changing in a way that seemed to be against all that America stood for. The country that I loved and went to war for was one of peace and liberty, but we seemed to have given that all up. Slowly but surely, the institute of government sought to reduce liberty for more control under the guise of security. The Military Commissions Act, the PATRIOT Act, TSA, “government secrets,” and other similar programs continued to wear away at the freedoms I sought to protect. This erosion of our freedom is not a conspiracy or the ill intentions of evil politicians. Rather, it is simply the natural reaction of the institute of government. Just how everything looks like a nail when one has a hammer, everything appears to be coercively fixable when the government has a monopoly on force. Thus, the government’s solutions will always be more police, more control, and less freedom.
Now ten years after the attacks, we sit in a country that is a shadow of its formal self. This is a country that has sacrificed the lamb of liberty on the altar of security and faces economic problems far into the future. We must decide how to move forward. We have a new generation growing in the U.S. that doesn’t remember 9/11, but is going to pay the costs for it.
How do we move forward in a way that prevents these types of tragedies and reflects the love of those lost? What would those who died want us to do? Would they want war or peace? Would they want us to kill or forgive? Would they want us to sacrifice the liberties soldiers have died for? Or would they want us to live our lives as free and loving as possible?
These are not easy questions. They require rational discourse, an analysis of history, an emotional attachment, and patience for us to retain our humanity and culture of liberty and acceptance. When it comes down to it I think it is these questions that have plagued me since Afghanistan, though it was not so clear in my head.
When I think back on those that I fought with and those that gave their lives for the United States, I can really only answer in one way. They would want me to live a free life filled with peace. They would not want me to sit idly by while the very culture of freedom that they fought for is eaten away from the inside out. Since it does not do any good to protect yourself from an outside invader if you are dying on the inside, we must heal our country and return to the ideas that provided prosperity to begin with.
In order to protect ourselves and our liberty in the future, we must end the policies that continue to create enemies. Intervening in foreign affairs with violence will not make us safer. We are not somehow morally superior for doing it, regardless of the intentions. There are many horrible people in the world in positions of power, but the long-term consequences of interfering have shown to be worse than letting things take their own course. We are bogged down in two wars and have military forces around the globe engaging in countless arenas of combat. We can prevent future attacks and regain the principles of liberty, but to do that we must reject military imperialism and stop sacrificing our liberty for the illusion of safety. The path of peace and prosperity is the path we should choose, but we can’t do that if we support policies of pointing guns abroad and using force domestically to solve our problems.
Originally published on the SFL Blog and reproduced with permission