09/09/2011 07:02 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2011

September 11, 2001: The Day the World Shifted

Ten years ago, while driving to work, I watched in horror as smoke and flames billowed from the Pentagon from across the Potomac River. Later, huddled in a basement office, our small staff overcame its fear that this was "the beginning of the end" and got to work.

The message sent that day to our members began, "The world has shifted." Like the first few moments after an earthquake, we didn't know how bad the damage was, but we knew the world would never be the same again. I wrote then:

"Right now, I am as fearful of the knee jerk reaction that our nation could embark upon, as I am by the damage that those forces behind these attacks can inflict.

We who work for a more peaceful and just world must be the voice that says more than "strike back." We must talk about what we can do to stop this from happening again....Military might is not enough to halt a determined foe that is willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in and use all means available to lash out. The United States should seek to find those behind this attack and bring them to justice. But at the same time it should evaluate what damage it has done by hamstringing the growth of a democratic system of international governance that will allow members of every society to feel that they are stakeholder, rather than downtrodden serfs, in our global village.

I ask all of you in the days ahead to be the courageous voice of sanity and reason and help turn this tragedy into the beginning of a healing rather than the beginning of the end."

In 2001, the U.S. had an opportunity to treat the attacks as either the terrible crimes they were, or as acts of war. Ten years later it is clear that reason did not prevail. A front page news article in the Washington Post declares that this "is the American era of endless war." It goes on to say that "peace" has become "a dirty word in Washington foreign-policy circles."

The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been staggering:

  • About 135,000 civilian and military lives have been lost.
  • The Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates the costs of these wars between 3 and 5 trillion dollars.
  • United States' reputation as a human rights leader is still stained by the torture and horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.
  • The clamp down on student and tourist visas has denied the U.S. of vital income as well as tens of thousands of opportunities to export democratic values.

It didn't have to be this way. The conservative columnist, George Will, noted that the mastermind of 9/11, Osama Bin Laden was "brought down by intelligence gathering that more resembles excellent police work than a military operation." The response to the 9/11 attacks should have been treated primarily as a violation of law rather than an act of war. Unfortunately, the Bush administration and Congress blew it.

But it is time to stop looking backwards. Ten years ago we allowed fear to rule us. But now we have some important questions to answer:

  • How do we end the "endless" war?
  • How can we ensure we do not choose war over law again?
  • What ways can we cooperate with other nations to build a safer and more secure world?

It was most likely a coincidence that the 9/11 attacks happened on the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly. On Tuesday, two days after the 10 year commemoration, President Obama will address the gathered leaders of the world at this year's General Assembly open session. While domestic and economic issues are dominating his attention, this would be an ideal opportunity for him to recommit to a vision where human rights and the rule of law are once again the foundation of how the United States engages the world.

But if I were in his shoes, I'd want to know that the American people had my back and are ready to move forward in a rational and pragmatic way to address the challenges of our interconnected world. Will we finally demand the closure of Guantanamo? Will we allow rampant military expenditure to continue at the expense of diplomacy and development?

Ten years later, we know the policies of war have failed. Yet we still allow the fear generated by the horrors of 9/11 and the terrorist acts that followed to silence our better selves. Citizens for Global Solutions is committed to forging a path of peace. America's ability to overcome the "fear of the other" has allowed us to become the great nation that we are. This year, join me in reasserting this fundamental American value.