From 9/11 to January 6
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How is the attack on the US Capitol connected to September 11, 2001 and the wars that followed? The answer may help explain why nearly 1 in 5 of those arrested for their part in the January 6 riot are military veterans—and more importantly, may tell us what we need to know to disrupt the cycle of violence.
Jeremy Courtney is the founder and CEO of Preemptive Love. He has lived and worked on the frontlines of conflict for over a decade, serving families who’ve been terrorized by violence, poverty, and disease. He’s the author of the book Love Anyway: An Invitation Beyond a World That’s Scary as Hell. Jeremy lives in Iraq with his wife Jessica and their two children.
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JEREMY: Over the last 20-some years, we’ve seen a significant number of our neighbors deployed into theatres of war. Those huge ranks of veterans have come home and essentially been recruited into their next battle.
BEN: This is the Love Anyway podcast. I’m Ben Irwin, director of communications for Preemptive Love.
It’s been over three weeks since the deadly assault on the US Capitol in Washington DC. We’re still learning about what took place in and around the Capitol building that day. But one of the more unsettling facts to emerge is this: of those arrested and charged for their part in the insurrection, nearly 1 in 5 served in the US military, according to a review of court records by NPR.
Why were veterans—who make up roughly 7% of the adult population—more than twice as likely to be involved in a violent uprising?
For the answer, we need to look back to the events of another momentous day in US history: the attacks of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath.
For the second time in as many weeks, I sat down with Jeremy Courtney, CEO and founder of Preemptive Love, to talk about the thread connecting September 11 to January 6, how our military adventures abroad set the stage for a violent uprising at home, and the one thing we all can do in this moment to stop the spread of violence.
BEN: So, Jeremy—one of the things that we saw during the capital insurrection: there seem to be a number of veterans, former military personnel off duty police who were involved. For example, there’s this video from a freelance journalist named Robin Brody Stevens, that shows a line of protesters. They’re all wearing military grade body armor, and they’re marching up the Capitol steps in the common formation used by combat teams as they’re preparing to breach a building. We also know that a number of the people who’ve been arrested, who’ve been charged, have a military background. And a number of the paramilitary groups who were present at the Capitol specifically target ex-military and law enforcement in their recruiting efforts. Why do you think there’s a correlation here? Why do some people who’ve experienced combat—certainly not all of them, certainly not most of them—but why do some tend to get drawn into this kind of extremism?
JEREMY: Because war is exciting—for all else that it is, for some people. Finding any kind of life or meaning that could ever be as exciting is almost impossible. And over the last 20-some years, we’ve seen a significant number of our neighbors across the United States recruited, trained, and deployed into theatres of war since 9/11. And those huge ranks of veterans who have gone out and served—primarily in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria—have come home and essentially been recruited into their next battle.
BEN: All right, so you mentioned 9/11. Are you saying you can draw a line from the events of that day and how we as a nation responded to January 6, 2021 and what happened at the US Capitol? Do you see a connection there?
JEREMY: Absolutely. I firmly believe there is a line from 9/11 to where we are today.
BEN: Talk a little bit more about that. What makes you—where do you see that connection? How does that play out?
JEREMY: 9/11 stoked a number of things in the American psyche. It was a foreign attack on our nation. It was a foreign attack on US soil that really stoked and gave a lot of footing or grounding to the notion that we should be against those people.
Now, the “those people” in this case were Muslims. They were Arabs. And they had been hiding out in our country in sleeper-cell fashion, training at US institutions to carry out an attack on the US population and US institutions. So it was very easy in the aftermath of 9/11 to whip up a fury over foreigners.
This is often called nativism, which is a slightly ironic term, given the fact that the white people it primarily is fueled by and upheld by are not the actual natives of this land. But that’s the commonly held word for this idea that this country belongs to us—which “us” means a typically European white male. And anyone who is not of “us” is not really true to this place. So 9/11 really gave a foothold for a new generation to drink in nativism strongly. We were told to be afraid of foreigners. Told to be afraid of Muslims, in particular. Told to be afraid of brown people more broadly. And many of us were raised on that. It’s not like that was just a one-week thing. It was a way of life and a way of viewing the world that many of us were raised in. That’s one thread.
Another thread would be the rise of conspiratorial thinking—the notion that 9/11 was an inside job. There were a lot of people who got in on the notion that 9/11 was not actually carried out by foreign, Saudi people who had wanted to attack our country, but that it was an inside job from the deep state government.
And so we were just set on a constant adversarial footing against one another and against the world. And all these troops went out. They fought, they killed, they labored, they served. They did community service, they cared for kids, they cared for the elderly. They did charity work in these foreign countries. They committed war crimes in these foreign countries. And they came back, many of them a mix of emotions, and adrenaline and confusion. You know, you had as many veterans who hated these wars and thought that they were foolish, as you did veterans who believed that they were righteous. And all of these people largely just came back and were thrown back into society without a ton of meaningful support.
Fast forward a little bit to Barack Obama pulling troops out of Iraq, shutting down some of the very projects they were working on. A lot of veterans took it personally. They saw it as a dereliction of duty, this non-combatant president who’d never served, who didn’t understand the depths and complexities of what they were going through. I think there was a lot of resentment toward toward Obama—never more so than a couple of years later, when ISIS rose up in the Middle East and committed a genocide against so many. That felt like the ultimate betrayal to a lot of military folks. And then the way the Obama administration handled ISIS, refusing to call them an “Islamic radical terror organization,” believing that that would unnecessarily stoke fears against Muslims—that felt like it was too politically correct. It gave a real foothold for people like Donald Trump at that time to start driving a wedge even further and further between these two camps.
All these things end up being, kind of, the ingredients in the stew that Trump comes along and runs on these things—really beating the drum of nativism, reminding us of this us-versus-them kind of mentality, and starting to make promises to the military, to security forces, that was of a kind of machismo, macho, masculine tenor that they felt Obama really lacked, and America under Obama really lacked. And, “When are we going to get back to the kind of swagger that we had when we were out there killing terrorists?”
And Trump becomes president and spends four years really keeping up that pace, ultimately, to the point of calling these guys in. He likes that they are “his” militia. He likes that they will wave flags for him, just like we’ve seen. I’ve personally seen militia across Iraq and Syria waving flags with guns, you know, in the name of their guy. All of this comes to a boiling point on January 6, the march on the Capitol, that was in many ways predictable. He called them into an adventure that some of them hadn’t been able to find since they left Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.
BEN: So we send thousands and thousands of soldiers into Iraq into Afghanistan. They come back a mix of traumatized, disillusioned, and also just kind of without that sense of grander purpose that they had?
JEREMY: Yeah, and you know, you can’t—you can’t roll back the clock. You can’t undo anything. This isn’t a Hollywood movie. But if 9/11 had never happened, we never have the huge mainstreaming of anti-Muslim sentiment in the way that, we did post-9/11. We never have the huge mainlining of anti-foreigner/immigrant/refugee sentiment that we did. We never send tens and tens of thousands of troops off to war. We never establish the Department of Homeland Security to remind us every once in a while that we’re at threat level red, or threat level orange—and never starting the war on terror, an ill-defined forever war with no end in sight. You never have the trillions of dollars spent on the arms race that was 2001 to 2021. You never have the massive, massive buildup and deployment of war machinery sent out into the desert used and then—I can’t stress this enough—repatriated into American police forces, up-armoring our police and teaching them to be combatants in American streets. We made our own streets a warzone. And no one has paid a greater price for that than the very people who have now been standing on the streets and putting their lives on the line in recent days and months to protest saying “Black Lives Matter. Stop killing Black people just for being alive.” The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have had a profound impact on how we think about policing. And I’m not saying none of these problems existed before 9/11. But had we been able to avoid stoking some of these fires or throwing fuel on some of these fires, we would not be where we are today.
BEN: Do you see, like, specific points after 9/11, up until today where, like, we could have changed the script?
JEREMY: You know, George W. Bush showed some real tact and nuance and leadership when it came to trying to hold back any sort of broad-brushing of Muslims at that time. But he’s still a product of his time and place, and ultimately fell into some other things and made some other decisions that ultimately helped stoke the open-ended attack and the open-ended targeting and the “we don’t know when this thing is going to end” of the war on terror. We were all taught to see the world through such a heightened sense of fear.
BEN: I think we have a hard time imagining ourselves or the people we love veering into any kind of extremism. We always think that’s something that happens to other people, usually people who are not like us, and especially with members of the military who are venerated in American culture, in American politics. That’s like the one thing left that everybody—Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative—agrees on, that our soldiers are heroes. And in many cases, rightly so.
But I think that also makes it hard for some people to imagine the idea that a member of the military, a member of the armed forces, is vulnerable to extremism. And yet, it seems like we should know better because of what we saw in Iraq after the invasion, where we disbanded Saddam’s army, sent them into the wilderness, so to speak. And they emerge years later and become the foundations of the movement we came to notice ISIS. Which, I mean, that was a secular regime, at least on paper. Many of Saddam’s loyalists—at least from what I’ve heard, from what I understood—did not show any signs of religious extremism. And yet, when ISIS came along there they were.
I’m wondering what lessons you think we should take from what happened in Iraq, what happened with Saddam’s army and the beginnings of ISIS.
JEREMY: So you’re right, on some level, that Saddam’s Ba’ath-ism is essentially secular. It’s primarily about Arab identity and pan-Arab movement. But after Saddam’s genocide against the Kurds in ’88, and eight years of warring with Iran next door, after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the smackdown he got from George H.W. Bush, Saddam was so decimated and so weak, and under such an intense regime of UN sanctions—a very violent regime—that Saddam found faith and actually started recasting himself as faithful to Islam. Saddam learned that wrapping your flag and your scripture together around your political agenda can be really popular. Saddam helped revitalize himself and invigorate his movement by wrapping it in Islam.
By the time that turns into the Coalition [Provisional] Authority disbanding his movement, so that no one who was at any level in Saddam’s government could be a part of the new Iraq—yeah, all those people got sent home. With their guns, by the way—send the military home, but don’t take their guns away from them. And they become the insurgency there is already in them. It’s a kind of hybrid militaristic, religious nationalism that’s not drastically different than the United States.
There’s such a blending and a syncretistic kind of faith that we have in much of American life, between the flag and our military and the actual tenets of faith itself, that it’s almost impossible to pull them apart from one another. Then you get a guy like Trump who comes along and also, like Saddam, learns how to wrap himself in a faith that is largely foreign to him and learns how to attract to himself both the cynics who are really just con artists learning how to grift in the name of Christianity, and also attracts a very devout, true and faithful, earnest Christian movement to himself, as well. And that’s what we’ve had for the last five years.
So that now we find ourselves on January 6 with an almost indecipherable, impossible-to-parse-out movement. Over the last decade or two, politics has arguably become the defining religion of American life. It’s not really our Christianity or Islam or our Buddhism or Hinduism or Judaism that defines us anymore. It’s really it’s really more our liberalism or conservatism. And I think it’s going to have a cascading and catastrophic effect on American religious life for generations to come, if not forever.
BEN: If I were to look for, like, a common thread to connect a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about, I think one of them is this idea that the trauma of violence is itself a breeding ground for more violence.
JEREMY: The irony of 9/11 is that, while it might have taken 20 years, bin Laden did it. He won. He destroyed America by getting us to overreact and over-index for certain threats. 9/11 set off a domino effect, where essentially, we killed ourselves. I’m not saying that pre-9/11 America was perfect or great or if we could just go back to that. But there are some things that we were doing better than we are today; there are some things that we have made so much worse in the last 20 years.
The whole point of terrorism is to throw the larger superpower regime off its footing. That’s what terrorism is. That’s why it exists. It’s purpose is to get you fighting on multiple fronts at once. It’s to get you looking over your shoulder all the time. That’s what terrorism is. al-Qaeda, bin Laden—they attacked our two temples. The temple to capitalism in New York City, the World Trade Center. And our tempo to national defense and security in Washington, DC, at the Pentagon. And in knocking out those two centers of worship, America lost its identity. And to prove that we hadn’t lost our identity, to prove that we were still strong economically and still strong in defense and a superpower worthy of veneration and fear, we overreacted over the next two decades. And they got us to spend ourselves into a really dark place. They got us to massively exploit the poor. They got us to drive a huge wedge of income inequality. We were complicit in our own suicide, in many ways.
I’m not saying that there’s no way back. But there’s something that I think has forever been lost. 9/11 was the end of the American Century.
BEN: So to your point that we lost something that we will never get back—but hopefully it doesn’t mean that there’s no way forward. What is that way forward? How do we stop making the mistakes that we were lured into through 9/11? How do we disrupt the cycle?
JEREMY: At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I’ll say this: we need to know our neighbors better. We need to get to know our neighbors, like in America and beyond. If we had all known numerous Muslims, on September 11, 2001, I think we could have had a different path forward as a country.
Let’s say those in the Trumpist movement right now—let me focus it on that. If those in the Trumpist movement, which includes so many of my friends and family, knew significant numbers of Black Americans—knew them well, not just the coworker, my friend—but really know their story. Not just the guy at 7-11 I say hi to, but really knew their story. Not just the guy even that I stand next to in church from time to time, but really knew their story. And not just one, not just two families, but like numerous people with divergent points of view and divergent histories. And if we were that integrated into Black society, Muslim society, Mexican society, immigrants of all stripes in the United States—if we were integrated more deeply into the tapestry of America, rather than continuing to think that somehow our whiteness defines the tapestry of America, that our whiteness is the baseline, what we think of as the normal American—I think we would do great, great good in stopping the spread of violence.
We spread violence to things we don’t understand, to things we fear. We are most manipulable or manipulated when someone can get one over on us, because we don’t know what that other group really says, believes, thinks.
We were taught and told that Muslims were a certain way. And it was—we were easily duped, because we didn’t know Muslims who could tell us differently. We didn’t let Muslim people tell us who Muslims were. We’re not letting Black people today in America tell us what it means to be Black in America.
If you’re letting those voices tell you what their experiences are and what their life is and what it means to walk in their shoes, in their skin—then you are by definition less vulnerable to being recruited into someone else’s violence against them.
We need to know each other better. There are many, many things that we need to do to stop the spread of violence through our ranks, and many things we need to do to stop passing our trauma on. But one of those things is: we need to get out of our echo chambers of demographics and geographies and algorithms, and find ways to keep believing the best about each other through real-world stories of those who live a different reality than we do.
BEN: As we’ve seen so many times over the past year, most recently on the steps of the US Capitol, violence is not an “over there” problem. We cannot wage wars overseas and expect peace on our own shores. We cannot find a different path unless we stop repeating the things that got us here. We have to break the cycle. We have to break out of our echo chambers. And we have to start knowing each other better.
It may sound like a simple solution. But our decade-plus of living and serving on the frontlines of conflict have taught us this: you wage peace one small step at a time.
For more on how you can show up where you live, or if you’d like to join our community of peacemakers by giving monthly, go to preemptivelove.org. Thanks for listening.