It must be September; the barn swallows have begun their migration to Central and South America, apple cider doughnuts, fresh juicy peaches and apples call to me from the local farm stand, the field corn is taller than the car when I drive on the road through the fields. It is also this month that we mark the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, VA., and the crash of Flight 93 near Shanksville, PA, on 9/11 twenty years ago.
This was one of those memorable days that we all remember. For me John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations, the day that US armed forces pulled out of Viet Nam are remarkable and I remember something distinct about each day. There were other milestone days, such as the human landing on the Moon and the Mets baseball team, first winning the World Series.
The airliners crashing into those iconic buildings on 9/11 stands out for several reasons. Watching the towers, that I had been in on numerous occasions, destroyed by terrorist in real time on television was surreal. Seeing the Pentagon on fire with a gaping hole, and hearing about a domestic aircraft crashing in a field in Pennsylvania were images from an action movie. The next day driving through the tranquil Berkshire hills on my commute to Bard College at Simon’s Rock I was mesmerized by the beauty around me as my thoughts raced with what the terrorist attacks meant to America going forward. Less than a month later a coalition of U.S. and NATO forces invaded Afghanistan.
The military is a necessary component of the U.S. government. People have a right, an obligation, to protect themselves from demonstrated threats. Going after Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda was an appropriate response to an assaults on sovereign territory that killed thousands of people. What followed however, was an unfortunate escalation from a reasonable response to a justification to employ an outrageously bloated military industrial complex. This lasted 20 years.
The goal of the terrorist is not to win battles, but to have a high causality rate, produce fear, cause a government to overreact which destabilizes and undermines the society identified as the enemy. Let those so inclined determine if the attacks on 9/11 twenty years ago achieved those goals.
We should remember those people who died in the Twin Tower attack, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, those who have been suffering from disease and an early death from the aftereffects and the families of all the victims whose lives were turned upside down overnight. The tragedy, those who initiated it, and those who were its victims, are part of a much greater matrix of interdependence than is visible on the surface.
The attack and its corollary effects resulted in human death toll of 9/11 Wars (Afghanistan and Iraq): at approximately 800,000 people[i], brought us closer to a police state in the U.S., increased America’s distrust in government and resulted in trillions of dollars lost in pursuing hatred and greed.
There is also the damage to the environment wherever military operations take place and stage. How large a carbon footprint is left by twenty years of Jet fighters fuel, tank fumes, munitions, toxic chemicals spilled onto the land and into the air and water?
We all watched or read about the debacle that was the American and allies’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. The pundits widely panning the American ineptitude. Could it have been more logistically adequate and efficient, undoubtedly. What is lost in this perspective is that war is chaotic. Any war, anytime, anywhere. We are mislead by a sense of precision and orderliness in specific operations. But the fact remains that the best plan works great until its execution. War confounds all the planning by its inherent disorder.
What have we learned from this historic catastrophe? Unfortunately, we can look back on the Spanish-American War, the Korean ‘Police Action’, the war against the Vietnamese, on and on, to see that we make the same mistakes repeatedly. American arrogance, triumphalism, and an inability to correctly evaluate situations made by political leaders at the behest of their corporate instigators has become an all-too-common replayed scenario. A Buddhist perspective is one that eschews violence, especially war.
Going back to my drive through the countryside on my way to the college, I could foresee the consequence that played out. Not the specifics, not the scale, not the years of stagnated war and attempts at nation rebuilding. Who could have guessed in 2001 that President Bush would be deceived into an Iraq war? But I could see the hubris and opportunism that lay ahead. Tendai Buddhist Institute participated in peace vigils and demonstrations shortly after the American invasion of Afghanistan and leading up to the Iraq war.
Let me be clear. Buddhisms (the term Trevor Ling uses for the various Buddhist traditions) have not always been true to their teachings and philosophy, historically and currently. As a social enterprise we Buddhists have participated in, and in some cases, precipitated war and violence. For an insightful article I refer you to ‘Afterthoughts’ by Bernard Faure in the book Buddhist Warfare. [i]
American society and its media have glorified the military. The U.S. spends more on its military than 144 countries combined, and more than the next seven largest nations. With armed forces this well-endowed military involvement is all but guaranteed when there are disagreements between nations or in asymmetrical conflicts. ‘Shoot first and ask questions later’ is not just a phrase from Dirty Harry movies; it is American foreign policy.
There are reasonable alternatives. One of many is the Quincy Institute (https://quincyinst.org/ ). Which promotes what it refers to as Responsible Statecraft. There are groups like About Face: Veterans Against the War (https://aboutfaceveterans.org) and Veterans for Peace (www.veteransforpeace.org). There are many peace organizations that are non-partisan and have important actions.
There is a tendency to see the ‘others’ to blame for these malfeasances. Its’s the multinational corporations, the defense contractors, the corrupt politicians, etc. who are to blame. Yes, they are penultimately good targets for our wrath. But we buy the products they sell, we insist on food, goods and services priced cheaply so we can splurge on more and more products, and yes, we vote for those politicians, or don’t work for the less corrupt politicians, or don’t vote at all. Each of us is a fundamental part of the web of existence that includes all of the preceding. To quote Pogo, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”
It is time to memorialize those lost to hatred, let go of our materialist avarice, drop our cynicism, engage a true Buddhist perspective with an emphasis on social solidarity and the organic interdependence of people and communities. Buddhist teachings and practices can be a remedy to the ills of social atomization that leads to environmental degradation, militarization of society, and systemic racism.
Start by finding equanimity and peace within, then consciously make this peace a practice through engagement to change the destructive phenomena that we have contributed to around us. If the enemy has been us, then we have the means to vanquish this foe. Not just through good ideas, but through change, real change, systemic change. We are capable, but we must wish to make it so, then work steadily to be the bodhisattvas we emulate.
[i] Quincy Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University. Accessed 8/31/21
[ii] Jerryson, M.K. and M. Juergensmeyer (eds.) (2010) Buddhist Warfare. Oxford University Press.
Love and Gassho . . . Monshin