First published at Blog for Iowa on Sept. 11, 2011.
I was scheduled to fly from Moline, Illinois to Philadelphia on Sept. 11, 2001. My flight was cancelled. I returned to the office, and with the other office employees watched the twin towers burning and then collapse on television. I neither understood what happened nor knew what to do. But I turned to a president, one I believed stole the 2000 election, and said that I would support him after this act of terrorism. We all did.
What I remember most from the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 was my trip to Philadelphia a few days later. The plane was almost empty. As I approached the Eastern Iowa Airport, the radio announcer said President Bush was also heading to Philadelphia on an unannounced trip. Air Force One was already parked at Philadelphia International Airport when I arrived and I drove past it in my rental car heading to Interstate 95. There were hundreds of law enforcement officials stationed along the presidential route.
As I headed North, I passed the presidential motorcade returning to the airport. It was 10:30 a.m. On the radio I discovered that the President was in town fulfilling a campaign promise to visit a women’s shelter. He couldn’t have been in Philadelphia three hours. I shook my head, disappointed that after all that had happened, we were back to politics.
As the hope of getting something done in Washington D.C. this year wanes, and our attention turns to “jobs,” the “Super Committee” and the 2012 Presidential election, we are approaching the tenth anniversary of the event that brought almost everyone in the country together. I am referring to Osama Bin Laden’s successful hijacking of four aircraft and the deaths, destruction and economic damage it brought. It did bring us together, if only for the briefest of moments. Whatever consensus may have existed then, devolved into political gridlock unlike any in living memory.
We know about the deaths that day, and the illnesses of workers at Ground Zero. What we don’t consider enough is the death, destruction and economic damage caused by the United States reaction to Sept. 11, 2001. Hugh Gusterson reports in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his collaborator Linda Bilmes estimate that, in funds already disbursed or committed, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have so far cost the American taxpayer… $3.2 trillion.” It is noteworthy that this amount includes $200 billion in interest incurred after the decision to pay for the war with deficit spending. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the United States will incur another $800 billion in interest charges on the war debt by 2020. The wars are costing a lot.
In this month’s issue of The Lancet, Vic Sidel and Barry Levy published an article titled, “Adverse health consequences of U.S. Government responses to the 2001 terrorist attacks.” The article reminds us of the fact that there were more than the dollar costs of these wars. According to the article, as of July 26, 2011 there were 1,568 US Military deaths in Afghanistan and 4,408 in Iraq. There have been tens of thousands of US casualties. Likewise there were many times this number of Afghan and Iraqi deaths. Estimates are that 655,000 Iraqis died in the first 40 months of the Iraq War. Millions of refugees in both countries are on the move as a result of the wars. The health care infrastructure in Iraq was damaged, much of it destroyed. Thousands of villages in Afghanistan and their environs have been destroyed. Of 222,620 US military personnel who returned between May, 2003, and April 2004, 42,506 (19%) reported mental health problems and 68,923 (31%) used mental health services over the first year after they returned home. The article continues, but I have made the point: the cost of our reaction to September 11 was in more than dollars.
As we honor the lives lost and damaged by the terrorist attacks, I hope that for a moment we can include those lost and damaged by our political decision to invade Iraq and to prosecute a war with Afghanistan that no one has been able to win after more than thirty years of fighting.
Once we understand the true cost of war, it seems too high a price.