20 Years On, What Have We Learned? | Opinion

Twenty years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, including my own nephew, Karleton Fyfe, the U.S. military intervention and endless diplomatic work in Afghanistan have managed to replace the theologically inflexible Taliban with, well, the Taliban.

It would be understandable if those of us advocating peaceful solutions to extremist threats simply folded now and admitted that human history is just one act of violence birthing another and another and then another.

But that reality doesn't relieve me or others of the responsibility to work for a more peaceful future. That's one reason September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows was launched in February 2002. It has sought alternatives to bloodshed so that the instinctive reaction of governments to violence isn't more violence. I belong to the organization as a way of honoring my nephew and the desire of his parents—my sister and her husband—that no more people should die to avenge Karleton's murder.

I had an immediate decision to make the morning of 9/11. More than halfway through writing the lead commentary piece for a special edition of The Kansas City Star, where I was an editorial page columnist, I learned of Karleton's probable death. I had to choose whether to include that in the piece. I felt I had no choice so, toward the end of the column, I mentioned that Karleton was a passenger on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. Readers and fellow journalists mourned the loss of Karleton with me. And his parents have trusted me to tell this story.

That decision was in harmony with my belief that by pursuing and ultimately sharing knowledge about the sources of terrorism we can find solutions to this cycle of violence.

Since then, I've focused much of my writing on the idea that exposing ourselves to different religions, cultures and world views is essential to ridding the world of the false certitude that leads some people to believe they know all the answers before they even hear the questions.

Flowers are placed at the 9/11 Memorial
Flowers are placed at the 9/11 Memorial. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In that pursuit I traveled to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uzbekistan in 2002. My goal was to get a deeper sense of Islam both now and across its long history—a religion to which I first was exposed when I spent two years of my childhood in India. Through that experience and because of several national conferences I attended that focused on American Muslims, I better understood that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban do not truly represent Islam. They use the religion as a cover for their violence. I committed myself to helping my readers be more religiously literate as I, a Presbyterian Christian, became more so as well.

While doing that, I also spent several years working with a rabbi on a book, They Were Just People, about Jews in Poland who survived the Holocaust with help from non-Jews. What better example is there of false dogma and the rejection of the pursuit of knowledge than the violence of the Shoah?

I promoted the idea that religious literacy and an ability to understand and appreciate traditions beyond one's own are key to achieving peaceful tomorrows. In fact, I devoted the final chapters of my most recent book, Love, Loss and Endurance to sharing knowledge about the sources of extremism and ideas for how individuals and groups can work to undo radicalism.

What I find so painful today after the collapse of Afghanistan's government and its military is that 20 years ago I believed the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was justifiable as self-defense. I hoped that clearing out Al-Qaeda training camps would take no more than a year or two. Instead, the U.S. and its allies foolishly invaded Iraq in 2003 while trying to do nation building in Afghanistan, a country whose history and culture they never understood. Look at the appalling price in blood and treasure we, and especially the Afghans, have paid for that lack of knowledge.

Through it all, the strongest healing and hope I have felt came from communities of learning. From traveling, I have learned from—and maybe even taught—the many people I met. And readers have shared in my own journey toward learning. In Peaceful Tomorrows, I have found a group united by the desire to know more and do more and to be consistent in support of reason, peace and the essential dignity of all people. Now we watch the news from Afghanistan while at the 20 year anniversary of the loss of Karleton and so many others on 9/11. I'm reminded that the dignity of all people includes not just my family, but those like the Afghans who also have been permanently marked by 20 years of war and those wrongly locked up at the Guantanamo Bay military prison.

That consistency of values, coupled with the pursuit of knowledge, inspires me to learn more and to share that knowledge and wisdom. And I'm confident it will continue to inspire me until, one day, I run out of words.

Bill Tammeus is a former Kansas City Star columnist and past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.