Icannot write the words I said when Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. That is, they are not publishable. Let us just say it was an expression simultaneously sacrilegious and profane. One does not forget a moment like that, and does not need an anniversary to bring it to mind. Three years later, it is as fresh in my psyche as ever. The hijackers “changed the face of history,” bin Laden said, and they changed me too. Every clear, cloudless, lovely morning I look at the Pentagon across the river from my office and remember what I saw at 9:38 A.M. September 11, 2001. I try to remember what life was like before then; the pre-war days seem trivial in retrospect. However, looking at life now I wonder how much has really changed. Three years later the flag is not as noticeable, the sense of national unity nominal at best, our public discourse lacking much of its hard-won edge. Sensationalism has reasserted itself over substance in the news; trial coverage and gossip are again attaining dominance. Every change in the terror-alert status is met with cynicism fanned by political opportunism and talking-head-driven speculation well beyond what would be supported by the facts. If bin Laden were captured any time in the next seven weeks the event would not be so much celebrated as a victory as dissected as a stunt; the default assumption in the press would be that it had all been arranged. “Serious questions continue to swirl around the timing of the apprehension of Osama bin Laden, with the election a mere three weeks away….” You can write the talking points in advance. Someone probably already has.
Al Qaeda number-two man Ayman al Zawahiri did his bit for the anniversary, making his first appearance on Al Jazeera since March–assuming it was a new tape–and assuming the March tape was new as well. He appeared alone before a canvas backdrop and made a few feisty comments about how the infidels were being defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was weak tea compared to the September 9, 2002, al Qaeda world premier
featuring the personal testimony of the suicide hijackers. “There aren’t enough words to describe how great these men were and how great their deeds were,” a pre-recorded Osama bin Laden then said. Two years after that tape there is still no sure sign of him, none verified since December 2001. We hear periodically that he is out there, and every now and then, a new, scratchy audiotape emerges, but they are growing fewer and less interesting. You would think that with all the electronic wonders available today that Osama could put together a digital video, a set of cell-phone images, a webcam stream, anything at all to provide definitive evidence that he is alive. One of his audiotapes could refer to some recent event in very specific terms, so precise as to remove all doubt that he was somewhere conducting the war against the Crusaders and Jews with his usual operational acumen. But Osama can’t even seem to prove he exists, let alone pose the kind of threat he used to. And as time has passed the world has begun paying much less attention to him. Articles referring to bin Laden have declined 90 percent since they peaked in October 2001. This is not evidence of an effective media strategy.
The terrorists had a much different conflict in mind. Three years after 9/11 the US was supposed to be mired in a deadly stalemate in Afghanistan, feeding men and materiel into a fruitless effort to defeat the cunning terrorists and their heroic Taliban allies. We were supposed to be losing that war in the same way the Soviet Union lost when it fought in the Afghan mountains, draining our economy and demonstrating that our Superpower status was illusory. Terror attacks would continue inside the United States, and a growing antiwar movement would be agitating for peace. The Muslim masses were supposed to be rising in the streets against heretical regimes, other terrorist groups and even conventional armies in the Mideast were to be declaring fealty to bin Laden by now. The rest of the world would be too frightened or disengaged to be involved, they would watch from the sidelines lest they found themselves under siege; and for their weakness they soon would be. Yes, all of this was in the plan, the outline bin Laden published in 1996, his roadmap to uniting the Muslim Ummah and being recognized as the Mahdi. But it didn’t happen. The follow-on attacks were thwarted. The world united. The Coalition acted. The Taliban were overthrown, bin Laden put on the run, most of his cronies killed or captured. The Muslim masses did not rise up. One sometimes hears reasonably intelligent people say that al Qaeda is more dangerous now than they were before 9/11, but they cannot seem to pull off even small-scale domestic attacks, let alone another “Holy Tuesday.”
The spirit of our armed forces has remained resilient. A few months back the public discussion was alive with predictions that our services would fail to make their enlistment quotas, that the United States was facing an impending military manpower shortage, that we might have to bring back the draft. However, the services are mostly meeting their enlistments, and reenlistments are up, most significantly among the forces serving in Iraq. Despite some high-profile attention paid to cases of men who refused to carry out their duty in Iraq, desertion rates have fallen by half since 2001. There is an enduring sense of purpose and pride in our armed forces. They are aware of the significance of their mission, and can take pride in how well they have conducted it, along with their cohorts in the intelligence and law-enforcement communities, and all the government agencies that have contributed to the war effort. Yet it is because they have done so well that the climate of cynicism prospers. We are safer now, much more so than we were before September 11, so much so that people forget that safety is a relative term, and that unless we maintain our vigilance we will be right back in grave danger. I think this is what the vice president was referring to when he said we had to make the right choices, i.e., choose the right policies and not revert to treating terrorists as criminals deserving all the protections afforded by the same Constitution they hold in such contempt. Our counterterrorism effort has been remarkably effective, taking the fight to the enemy overseas, defeating or deterring any major attack on the homeland for three years. Nevertheless, the terrorists could hit us tomorrow. Our guys have to get it right a hundred times a day, but the enemy only has to get it right (or get lucky) once. If they do, we may have another terrible day to commemorate. We can help prevent it by remembering the sense of unity we felt in the face of the tragedy three years ago, and trying to bring some of that spirit back into our public life. When people say “never forget” it should not mean only once a year.
–James S. Robbins is Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.