Ijoined the U.S. military after law school to help my country defend itself against the threat of Islamic extremism. My final assignment in my eight years in the Air Forcewas as a war crimes prosecutor in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. With access to our nation’s most intimate secrets, I shuttled between Guantanamo and the Pentagon from the summer of 2007 to the winter of 2009. I learned many lessons, but on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the most important lesson I can share is the most alarming: After so many years and so much sacrifice, nothing has changed.
Our greatest weakness remains today what it was 10 years ago, and what it was eight years before that, when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993. We don’t understand Islam or Arab culture, and that ignorance prevents us from accurately predicting our relationship with Arab and Muslim countries and identifying our enemies.
From our government to the front lines, individuals are making decisions based on inaccurate, biased information. The White House’s August announcement on combating radical Islam acknowledged this reality. Our soldiers, agents and analysts don’t have the facts they need to make informed decisions about whom to trust, what to believe and how to keep the threat at bay.
Whether it’s the FBI recommending its agents read books by a known anti-Muslim author, misplaced anxiety over “sharia law,” the near absence of linguistic and cultural training in the military, or our government’s collective surprise at the Arab Spring, the effect of what we don’t know reverberates through U.S. policy. But the result is the same: We are caught off guard by events we should have anticipated or, worse, we confuse our enemy’s propaganda with knowledge.
As an American Muslim born and raised in New Jersey, I am frustrated that America still struggles with the basics: We don’t understand the difference between Islam and Islamic extremism, or that Arab culture is not the same as the religion. We divide Muslims into secularists and extremists and can’t tell the devout from the radical, the sympathizer from the opportunist.
Two of the most enduring examples are the military commissions and Guantanamo Bay — intractable problems that will never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. They’re once and future disasters built by people who should have known better — people America trusted to know more. Both were operated and sustained by individuals so uninformed of our enemy’s religion, language and culture that they could not accurately process the information available to them. Attorneys couldn’t tell good cases from bad ones, and the agents assigned to the commissions didn’t know what questions to ask detainees.
I saw it firsthand. From lawyers to interrogators, the vacuum was enormous. It filled Guantanamo Bay with men who did not need to be there and barred their release. It was fuel on a fire set by a legal process that initially conflated the mutually exclusive missions of intelligence-gathering and the rendering of justice. The absence of knowledge and leadership permitted the worst of what happened — reports of the abuse of prisoners, the desecration of holy books, the legal pantomimes — and continues to prevent a resolution to the human drama playing out on that island.
We cannot close Guantanamo because the trials of the detainees who remain would be tainted by evidence from botched interrogations and because the men there are now radicalized — the result of decisions based in an ignorance tantamount to racism.
This ignorance is a degenerative disease that debilitates our efforts to protect our nation. It was tempting to think that with Osama bin Laden’s death we could end this conflict, if only we could end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While those wars must be concluded, neither their end nor the death of any individual terrorist will secure us against another attack by Islamic extremists. We’re not fighting a single enemy but a decentralized patchwork of groups that adhere to the same twisted, bankrupt ideology. Whether it is Jemaah Islamiah in Southeast Asia or al-Shabab in Somalia, our enemies are motivated and wait — patiently — until we forget.
As we honor the past, we must also commit to the future. This commitment must include an expectation that all Americans responsible for protecting us possess the education and knowledge to do so and be committed to accuracy and learning. A good place to start would be language and culture training for our soldiers, and training in Islam and Arab culture and history for policymakers. Similar education should be made available to local law enforcement and community leaders. At the height of the Cold War, we encouraged our best and brightest to study Russian language and history. Ten years after Sept. 11, this is a basic but necessary step. Ignorance is our vulnerability, and we must begin somewhere. Those individuals we remember Sunday deserve better. We all do.
The writer is a former Air Force officer and war crimes prosecutor. He prosecuted U.S. v. Hamdan and U.S. v. Al Bahlul, the first two litigated cases to be brought before a military tribunal since the Nuremberg trials after World War II.