I recall precisely where I was, as well as what I was doing, when I heard the horrible and heart-wrenching news of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the aborted attack represented by the plane that went down in rural Pennsylvania. I know I’m not alone in being able to remember my personal coordinates and tap into the emotions of that defining day.
My physical location on September 11, 2001 differed, however, from that of most other American citizens. I was living in Jakarta, Indonesia and not physically present in the United States. At the moment I heard the news, I was in the house that my family and I had called home for about one month. My family and I had moved halfway around the world from our previous home in Baltimore to explore a new part of the world and a new culture, and to help to build a more just and peaceful world through my involvement in development and relief work.
My wife and I had been eager to live again in a part of the world where, among other things, we and our children would hear the call to prayer from the minarets of local mosques. Our desire to do so was grounded in large part in our experience living and working for five years in Palestinian East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in the 1990s where we were deeply affected by the challenges of daily living, as well as by the rewards of living in close proximity to Jews, Christians, and Muslims for whom the land of Israel/Palestine and specific sites within it are holy.
Intending to be open to experiencing the deep spirituality that extends across diverse religions, we were looking forward to spending several years living in Indonesia. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. It also has smaller but significant numbers of Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists, as well as a Confucian tradition. I am a Quaker and wife was raised in the Unitarian tradition. Our children identify primarily with Quakerism, yet certainly know and appreciate their Unitarian heritage as well.
On the evening of September 11, 20001, my wife and I were putting our children to bed when the phone rang (Jakarta is 11-12 hours ahead of the east coast of the U.S., depending on the time of year). On the other end of the line was a colleague whose family had only recently moved out of the same house we had just begun to call home.
My colleague relayed to me the initial reports of the attacks in New York and Washington, DC. We immediately turned on the TV (subtly and quietly so as not to disturb the children). We watched in shock and disbelief as the images of the planes flying into the twin towers were shown repeatedly.
Very quickly, we had the sense, along with so many others, that our world would never be quite the same again. As the U.S. response to the attacks unfolded in the following days and weeks, we began increasingly to realize that our work in Indonesia and the broader Southeast Asia region would take on new dimensions.
It was clear at the time, as I am clear today, that responding to September 11 violence with more violence would not stop the threat or address the underlying causes that led to the attacks. Furthermore, it became more and more clear to me that the organizers and implementers of the 9-11 attacks wanted to draw the United States into a fight that to a large extent would be undertaken on their terms and which would allow them to demonstrate the “justice” of their cause.
Then-President George W. Bush quickly declared a “war on terrorism” and announced that we would increase our already-ongoing efforts to track down al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden. A coalition of military forces, led by the United States, invaded Afghanistan to track down and exterminate al-Qaeda, and to overturn the government of their Taliban hosts.
Fast forward to Sunday night. My wife and I had just concluded a conversation about our calendars and our commitments for the coming several weeks. Our son, born in Jerusalem and now 15 years old, was watching the Phillies-Mets baseball game on TV in the next room. As I joined him, the sportscasters began talking about the chants of “USA, USA,” that were erupting from the fans at the baseball park in south Philadelphia. TV cameras zoomed in on fans holding various mobile devices that were showing the breaking news reports that Osama bin Laden was dead.
We waited for the announcement from the White House that the TV news anchor advised was forthcoming. President Barack Obama appeared, strode to the podium in the East Wing, and announced that bin Laden had been killed by U.S. special forces. One of the most striking revelations was that, after nearly 10 years of foreign military occupation of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s mastermind was found not in Afghanistan, or even in the remote mountainous region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Rather he was located and killed in a location deep inside Pakistan, in a major city that is relatively close to the capital city of Islamabad.
Prior to and following Obama’s announcement, we were shown TV images of demonstrators gathering outside the White House in jubilant celebration of the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. On one level, I think I understand the relief, if not the joy, felt by those who are celebrating. After all, the actions of this man promoted violence and death, and our country has pursued him for well over a decade as a result.
Yet I did not and do not find myself in a joyful or celebratory mood, or even feeling a sense of relief. Why not?
I have discerned several reasons. First and foremost, I believe deeply that war isn’t, and never has been, the answer to terrorism. My Quaker faith leads me to the conclusion that nonviolence is the only way to promote peace and justice. Jesus taught us to love our enemies. He did not teach (or ask) us to kill them. That basic teaching is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. In short, we are called to witness to the spirit of love that takes away the occasion for war. We are called to seek that of God in every person, even when that person perpetrates evil in the world.
My personal experience and my understanding of history both tell me that killing Osama bin Laden is likely to provoke revenge and more violence. In fact, his death and the manner in which it came about may well help the recruitment efforts of al-Qaeda and like-minded organizations that promote violence. This is particularly true when the killing is considered in tandem with the ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan by foreign forces (evidence shows that foreign military occupation has a direct relationship to the dramatic rise in suicide terrorist attacks — i.e. a rise in violent extremism — over the past 30 years) and the U.S. role in what by most accounts seems to be an increasingly divided and militarized society in Pakistan.
Obama declared on Sunday night that justice was served and that world will be a safer place because the United States has killed Osama bin Laden. I remain unconvinced that either of these declarations is true.
I do believe, however, that this important moment in history could be part of a turning point that takes us in the direction of realizing sooner rather than later two objectives of the Friends Committee on National Legislation: the removal of U.S. military bases and combat troops from Afghanistan; and diplomatic efforts to reach a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. When accomplished, both will be worth celebrating.
Jonathan Evans is the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s foreign policy legislative Representative. This post originally appeared on 2C, the FCNL’s blog.