The events of 9/11/2001 are seared into the memory of every American who was old enough to understand the calamity that befell our nation on that crisp, clear September morning. Some of us witnessed it live in NYC, millions of us watched it unfold live on TV, and millions more watched it later that evening on the news. The level of heroism displayed that day by the NYPD, FDNY, Port Authority Police, and many others was unparalleled and will never be forgotten. All of us were rightly shocked and angered when we learned who had perpetrated such an evil act against us and our leaders immediately vowed retaliation. The Sleeping Giant had been awakened.

When the US government decided to invade Afghanistan to root out the Al Qaeda terrorists and destroy their training camps, the vast majority of Americans supported the decision. The early days of the war saw a great many victories but it shortly became clear that cleansing the Afghan countryside was more complicated than first thought. If Afghanistan was to remain an inhospitable place for terrorists to hide out and train, we would need to also remove the Taliban regime and install a new government friendly to the United States and capable of ruling a country comprised of scores of tribes who did not favor a central government. Very quickly we learned the true meaning of, “You break it, you buy it.”

It became evident within the first two years of the War on Terror that our efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda and other groups from the field had only served to increase the number of terror attacks around the world. Rather than re-evaluate and adjust our policy, the US government not only continued the war but expanded it by invading Iraq with no provocation and—as we would later find out—no legitimate justification. The War on Terror had been transformed into a global crusade that pitted Western Civilization against Radical Islamic Terrorists. A coalition of 59 countries followed the United States to war in Iraq and removed the Saddam Hussein regime and Baath Party rule, but the toll in collateral damage to the nation’s people and infrastructure was staggering. We shattered a sovereign nation based on a lie and then left when it became obvious there would be no positive outcome for the US.

I submit that young men with an education, a job, and a girlfriend would be far less likely to strap on an explosive vest and die for the cause.

The vacuum we created in Iraq was the perfect breeding ground for a new and more lethal form of Radical Islamist ideology to take root and grow. ISIS (ISIL / The Islamic State) became the home for thousands of disaffected former Iraqi Army officers and soldiers, Baath Party members, and people seeking revenge on the United States and our allies. They are currently waging a war against the West and the people of Iraq and Syria with the goal to bring US Troops back to the region to engage them in an apocalyptic showdown.

ISIS has successfully carried out scores of terror attacks in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and here in the United States. The number, frequency, and sophistication of the attacks is increasing exponentially. And in response the US government and our allies are increasing drone and special operations attacks on ISIS assets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq,  Syria, Yemen, and Africa along with increased direct action by Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the region. We are now three years into a seemingly endless cycle of violence and destruction with no end in sight. And an entire generation of Americans has grown up knowing nothing but a nation at war.

While it is easy to understand the primal motivation to retaliate and destroy an enemy like ISIS, we must always remember that we are more than mere animals reacting to stimuli with tooth and claw. We are rational, intelligent beings with the ability to set aside our instinctive responses and use reason to solve complex problems. The first step to solving any problem, especially one that involves human emotions, is to assess the motivations of your enemy. A simplistic view of ISIS’ ideology leads to the conclusion that they want to convert the world to Islam and are willing to do so at the point of a sword. While this may be correct on one level, it gives us no useful insight into the motivations of those who enlist into the movement and sacrifice their lives for what is ultimately a hopeless cause. Why are they so willing to throw their lives away?

Perhaps there are lessons that we have learned on the streets of America’s cities that can give us insight into the cause and a possible solution to our ISIS problem. It is generally accepted that one of the root causes of gang violence in the United States is the persistent lack of economic and educational opportunity in many inner cities and some communities of color. Could the very same dynamic be at work in Iraq and Syria? If we look at the major cities of both countries they share striking similarities to inner cities in the US devastated by decades of neglect, crime, drugs, violence, and poverty. The difference is Iraq and Syria have experienced these calamities in a single generation and on a scale unprecedented since WWII.

I submit that young men with an education, a job, and a girlfriend would be far less likely to strap on an explosive vest and die for the cause. If this thesis bears out to be true, how will more troops, bombs, drone attacks, and death provide a solution? Can our political leaders even entertain a strategy other than more warfare in response to this threat? Will anyone have the courage to ask how we have helped create and sustain an environment that produces ISIS and others? After all the blood and treasure that has been spent, do you feel safer than you did before September 11, 2001?

Signature small 2