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Sunday, September 11, 2016

15 Years After 9/11, What Have We Really Learned?

Fifteen years ago, terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Back then, I was living in Raton, N.M., and was paying down debts, so I had no cable television, my Internet was limited to dial-up and I had no cell phone -- and at that time, social media was, more or less, the Internet message board. So I didn't learn about the attacks until I reached the office that morning. I can remember feeling numb most of the day, distracted from work and spending more time browsing CNN's website or the message boards I visited.

Each year on Sept. 11, Americans are asked to reflect back on what happened and to "never forget." But it's worth asking ourselves what we should "never forget."

It's certainly worth remembering the importance of our public safety officers, the firefighters and police officers who ran into the World Trade Center towers to rescue people. Public safety officers know the risks that come with their jobs and that they can't predict what will happen when they do their jobs. So, yes, it's important to remember the important role those people play in our lives.

But it's also worth asking what other lessons we should learn from that day. Most Americans don't have much understanding about the Middle Eastern region and the United States' involvement there. The United States has been involved in that region since after World War II and, prior to that, there was little, if any, relations between the United States and that region. It wasn't simply because of isolationism; it was because the United States had little reason to be involved there and the nations at the time had little reason to concern themselves with the United States.

That changed after World War II. The Cold War started and the United States' primary concern was to stop the spread of Communism, meaning that it got involved in nations in which there was worry that said nations could become friendly with the Soviet Union. The nation of Israel that we know about today was founded and viewed by some Middle Easterners as unnecessary involvement by certain countries in their region. Along the way, several Middle Eastern countries recognized the power and influence they could wield over the United States' desire for oil. Those factors have led to multiple events through the nearly 70 years between the end of World War II and the 9/11 attacks -- events in which Americans had varying levels of interest, but all were a part of the chain of history that led to what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

And since that time, the United States has only increased its involvement in the Middle East with no signs of it ever ending. To paraphrase statements I read this morning about the events of Sept. 11: They put the United States at war, but with what, the United States didn't necessarily know what it was at war with. To be more specific, the United States could point to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who took responsibility for the attacks, but what the United States may not have understood was exactly how such threats could be taken down. And that led to a series of events that have made for more instability in the Middle East and new threats arising, even though Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda's power has been at least reduced.

If we are truly to demonstrate what we have learned from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, I believe we need to ask ourselves if the approach we have taken the past 15 years has really worked, and not simply wonder if it's only because we didn't work hard enough. While nobody is going to argue that the 9/11 attacks can be anything but an evil act, we need to understand the events that led to it (which are far more complex than we realize) if we are to ensure such events don't happen again. And that requires more than enhanced security or nation building, but identifying the root of the problem and determining the best way to address it.

So as you reflect on the events of 9/11, by all means, remember those who lost their lives and remember the role public safety officers play in our lives. But don't forget to consider what really needs to be a proper response to ensure stability in the Middle East and reduce the influence of extremist organizations who push violence as their means to an end. That may be a more difficult thing do than raising a flag and thanking people for their service, but it's something that we should never forget to do, as much as we never forget those who lost so much that day.

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