14 Years After 9/11 - Are We Safer?

Our nation commemorated the fourteenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks by mourning the tragic loss of over 3000 people. Not only was that day a national tragedy; it was a personal tragedy for thousands of families of all races and religions.

But as we honor their memory, we should also ask ourselves the question that ensures they did not die in vain -- are we safer today?

Despite spending billions of dollars on countering terrorism, we are in a more dangerous world than on September 11, 2001. Our responses to 9/11 contributed toward the creation of a political vacuum that facilitated rather than prevented terrorism. Instead of focusing on the root causes of terrorism -- poverty, oppression, illiteracy, and occupation -- we responded to violence with more violence.

Thus, it is long overdue for us to shift from a military-driven counterterrorism strategy to one focused on human development that starves the terrorists of the chaos they thrive on.

When two airplanes struck the Twin Towers and a third attacked the Pentagon, our nation declared war on Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces. Our military pursuits soon spread to removing the Saddam Hussein regime. What started as a justified effort to hold accountable the individuals who planned and executed this horrific attack quickly transformed into an indefinite war on terror.

In our government's rush to defend our freedoms, it crossed moral and legal redlines.

In our name, the U.S. tortured, kidnapped, and worked closely with Middle East dictators to send individuals to secret rendition sites to disappear in dungeons of hell. Purported regional experts made fatal mistakes in the wholesale firing of the Iraqi army, disbanding the Ba'ath party, and collectively punishing Sunnis for the war crimes of Saddam Hussein. These people are now united in their fight against us in Iraq and Syria.

As a result, the Middle East is a more unstable and dangerous place today than it was 14 years ago. Sectarian wars are ravaging through Iraq at unprecedented levels. ISIS has eclipsed Al Qaeda in its brutality. And millions of Syrians and Iraqis have been killed or displaced. All the while, the Middle East is under the firm grip of authoritarians whose own brutality creates environments fertile for terrorism.

This reality is all the more tragic when considering the significant risks taken by millions of people across the Middle East in revolting against their American-supported dictators. Through mass uprisings in 2011 and 2012, the people of the Middle East clearly demonstrated their desire for democracy, equality, and justice. They rejected both the brutality of terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda or ISIS and their own governments. And yet their cries to regain their human dignity fell on deaf ears in Western capitals.

Although willing to send military aid to defend authoritarian regimes against terrorist organizations, European and American leaders balked at supporting nonviolent grassroots movements to establish more democratic political systems. Hence, we should not be surprised that terrorism rather than democracy has spread through the region.

So long as the extent of our involvement in the Middle East is through military intervention and supporting dictators, peace and democracy will not take root. And as violence begets more violence, terrorist organizations -- whether Al Qaeda, ISIS, or their progeny -- will continue to thrive.

If we are serious about making our country safer, we must recognize the humanity of those trapped between terrorist organizations and authoritarian regimes that both become more potent as our military responses expand. By developing strategies that invest in education, development, and self-governance; we empower citizens of the Middle East to pursue peace.

Fourteen years later, it is time to acknowledge that for us to be safe; they too must be safe.

Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law and the author of Bringing Down an Uprising: Egypt's Stillborn Revolution