In the wake of September 11, it was often said that the attacks collectively changed us. Did it? In marking the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States, we asked a group of experts that question. Five years later, are we changed and how? Or, how should we have and didn’t?
Without question, the horrific attacks of 9/11 unsettled our view of the world, unleashing arguably the greatest foreign-policy and national-security debate since the rise of post-WWII Communism — a debate that continues to this day.
Having won the Cold War, widely discrediting the Soviet Union’s godless communist ideology, the United States on 9/11 found itself confronted with a new national-security challenge — defeating the stateless al Qaeda and undermining its religion-based terrorist ideology.
As a result, we had to fundamentally change the way we looked at threats to our national security, building a new paradigm for tackling the challenge of defending the homeland and vanquishing the structure and ideology of the first terrorist group with global ambitions.
And the changes in our national-security strategy we’ve made are making progress in fighting this virulent strain of Islamist terrorism — killing/capturing extremists and foiling deadly plots against innocents across the globe.
But even more adjustments to our already — changed thinking on national security will likely be necessary as we struggle to win the equally critical battle of ideas against the Islamic forces of darkness.
– Peter Brookes is senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He is author of A Devil’s Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States.
9/11 and its aftermath have revealed hidden aspects of institutions, individuals, and nations.
Formerly, new technologies, globalization, and mass travel seemed to be pure positives: They made us richer and stronger. Now we see how they make our delicate, complex civilization terrifyingly vulnerable.
We have also seen bizarre and revealing political realignments, the war and terror bringing together strange bedfellows: On one side traditional leftists lie down with neo-cons and true liberals; on the other are anti-American new leftists, anti-Semitic isolationists, Chomskyites, and Islamists.
The attacks themselves brought out the best in us, and the worst, sometimes in unexpected ways. There were no pogroms against Muslims, despite all the heavy breathing about “backlash.” Indeed 9/11 showed Americans to be people of astonishing calmness and compassion.
On the other hand, its aftermath revealed our depressing willingness to defer to the dumbest suggestions by ill-qualified and ignorant security “experts” who are bereft of common sense and who refuse to learn from genuine experts in Britain or Israel. We submit to one silly restriction after another. See e.g. the idiotic, knee-jerk banning of nail-clippers and metal forks on airplanes (effectively disarming passengers not terrorists), the foolish cult of photo-ID (as if no terrorist could ever get a driving license), and the tiresome checkpoints in office buildings manned by officious rentacops. All the while, our mainstream media wails about sensible measures like profiling, but complacently ignores measures that truly damage our freedom.
– Jonathan Foreman, who has reported on the war from Iraq, is author of The Pocket Book of Patriotism.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr.
Since 9/11, we have been at war, yet not at war. We have been fighting an enemy we largely could not bring ourselves to name. We have been allowing a relatively small number of Americans to fight for the rest of us, abroad and at home — and to do so within ever-tightening constraints and with woefully inadequate resources. Many of us have no clue that this war is global in character and for the highest imaginable stakes.
Such a situation is as indefensible as it is untenable. If we are to prevail in this worldwide struggle, we have to get a couple of things straight:
Our most immediate enemies are adherents to a political ideology that masquerades as a religion. Call it Islamofascism.
While it purports to be about faith, as with previous totalitarian movements, it is really about power.
Our religious tolerance, however, affords our enemies opportunities to penetrate our societies and to exploit our civil liberties against us.
The Islamofascists seek to advance their agenda of global conquest via totalitarian techniques aimed at subjugating — by force, if necessary — first and foremost anti-Islamist Muslims and then the rest of us.
These realities demand that the United States adopt a very different posture, call it a “War Footing.” Its object should be to mobilize without further delay all of the talents, energies, resources and capabilities we can bring to bear to: protect us from Islamofascists overseas and at home; cut off the funding provided to and by the states that sponsor Islamofascism; and wage offensively and systematically non-military forms of warfare (notably, political warfare) wherever possible.
The bottom line was summarized best by Benjamin Franklin in the midst of our nation’s first war for its survival: “If we don’t hang together, we will surely hang separately.” If we are to avoid the latter fate now, we can hang together most effectively by embracing the conceptual, policy and programmatic changes that have been long overdue — changes that may yet prevent our destruction.
— Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and lead author of War Footing: Ten Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World.
Meghan Cox Gurdon
Before September 11, 2001, I was one of those Americans who rather envied the WWII generation: their stoicism, their solidarity, their comradeship in facing a common enemy and the sense of purpose they experienced that reaffirmed what it meant to be Us vs. Them. I was not alone in yearning, in an inchoate way, to be swept up as they were in great, Manichaean, epoch-defining events. September 11th changed that. As it turns out, it’s not ennobling to face a mortal enemy. It is frightening. The cruelty and implacability of the Islamic terrorists has made ordinary life seem fragile not in such a way that you appreciate each passing golden moment, but in a way that jolts you awake at night with strangled thoughts of whether everything you know and love will be taken away. But worse is finding that in this situation where, like our grandparents, we do face an obvious, common, and determined enemy, there is such self-loathing amongst our countrymen. When I hear people phoning C-SPAN to explain that 9/11 was an “inside job” by the Bush administration, or that the United States is to blame for “stirring up a hornet’s nest,” when the swarm was already upon us, it seems to me that national unity is impossible. Of all September 11th’s grim legacies, this seems to me the saddest.
– Meghan Cox Gurdon writes from Washington, D.C.
9/11 and its aftermath demonstrated that we are better, stronger, and more resilient than we thought but that we were intentionally been kept ignorant and complacent about the dangers and evils of the gathering jihadist storm making its way towards our shores. Osama bin Laden was not the only one who believed that these United States were easy pickings. Robert Bork had warned that we were Slouching towards Gomorrah, while Benjamin Barber had blamed us for championing the creation of a soulless McWorld. They were all proven wrong.
The generous loving messages of the victims; the simple heroism of police and firemen; the calm determination of the survivors; the amazing generosity and initiative shown by individuals and organizations revealed yet again just how indomitably soulful free people are. They also produce resilient interdependent growth-oriented economies capable (as the recent surprising 2007 World Bank report demonstrates) of using even security measures to increase international trade flow and decrease corruption. Most gratifyingly, we discovered what an amazingly valiant young generation we have spawned as many of its best and brightest rushed to join the arm forces quickly proving that contrary to recalcitrant elite opinion, productive, life affirming democracies produce very capable, if reluctant warriors.
But war is hell and the kind of semi-war in which we engaged in the past five years feels like slow water torture. Not surprisingly, we are in a foul mood desperately searching for a silver bullet or at the very least a sacrificial lamb to end it all. It is in such trying times that we must trust our innate pragmatism and ingenious political system to insure that we retain our moral balance, act moderately, and continue to tinker and adjust our strategies and tactics until we make sure that the government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from this earth.
– Judith Apter Klinghoffer, Fulbright professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, is the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences co-author of International Citizens’ Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights and History News Network blogger.
Half a decade later the changes seem small, and perhaps that’s a blessing. If 9/11 had been followed by 10/17, 11/02, 12/24, the Smallpox Epidemic of ’02, the EMP blackouts of ’03, and so much promiscuous anthrax distribution that mailmen tottered around in Hazmat suits on the hottest day of July, America would look quite different. But the other shoe didn’t drop — or rather, Richard Reid was KO’d before he could light it — and consequently we don’t look at the paper for news about the latest attack. We look at the ads in the paper for news about plasma-TV sales.
If 9/11 had really changed us, there’d be a 150-story building on the site of the World Trade Center today. It would have a classical memorial in the plaza with allegorical figures representing Sorrow and Resolve, and a fountain watched over by stern stone eagles. Instead there’s a pit, and arguments over the usual muted dolorous abstraction approved by the National Association of Grief Counselors. The Empire State Building took 18 months to build. During the Depression. We could do that again, but we don’t. And we don’t seem interested in asking why.
The good news? We returned to our norm: cheerful industrious self-directed Americans who think in terms of fiscal quarters, not ancient grievances, and trust in Coke and Mickey to spread our message of tolerance and prosperity. The bad news? Same as the good. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
– James Lileks is a columnist and blogger.
9/11 changed much for conservatives, little for liberals.
Conservatives tend to see the United States, Western culture, and even civilization itself under assault from a barbaric totalitarian force in some way connected to Islam. They perceive a cosmic struggle — reminiscent of those in World War II and the Cold War — over the future destiny of mankind.
Liberals tend to have a far more relaxed view of the situation, as symbolized by John Kerry’s 2004 comment calling terrorism a “nuisance” and comparing it to gambling and prostitution. Liberals widely accuse conservatives, for self-interested reasons, of exaggerating the threat. The hard Left goes further and purveys conspiracy theories about the Bush administration having perpetrated 9/11.
As I pointed out already in 1994 (in a National Review article), the current debate divides along lines closely mirroring those concerning the Soviet Union. Conservatives, being prouder of what Americans have created, worry more about external threats and urge confrontation; liberals, being more self-critical, are more sanguine, and prefer conciliation. Put differently, 9/11 mobilized conservatives against radical Islam even as it mobilized liberals against conservatives.
Looking ahead, nothing but an atrocity of terrible proportions will wake liberals and make “united we stand” once again a meaningful slogan.
– Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures.
The most enduring legacy of 9/11 is a psychological one: a deep feeling of vulnerability. By this, I don’t mean that most Americans fear that they themselves will be the direct victims of terrorism. We know how to calculate odds, and there is still safety in having an address far away from city centers and major landmarks.
The vulnerability highlighted by 9/11 was less personal than national. As the towers fell in Lower Manhattan and speculation spread about the extent of the attack on Washington, the U.S. itself seemed to become, in the course of a morning, less invincible, less permanent. One could imagine a future historian looking at the day as a turning point, a blow from which the familiar rhythms of our national life never recovered.
Normalcy returned, thankfully, but the existential anxiety remains. I suspect that it even occasionally disturbs the sleep of those who insist that the threat posed by the Islamists and their murderous ideology is greatly exaggerated.
– Gary Rosen is managing editor of Commentary.
In the end, very little changed. The so-called “9/11 Democrats” are almost as invisible a presence as the “moderate Muslim,” and, insofar as one can tell, are most likely outnumbered by members of the Scowcroftian unrealpolitik Right still wedded to stability uber alles. In theory, if you’d wanted to construct an enemy least likely to appeal to the progressive Left, wife-beating gay-bashing theocrats would surely be it. But Islamism turned out to be the ne plus ultra of multiculti diversity-celebration — for what more demonstrates the boundlessness of one’s “tolerance” than by tolerating the intolerant. The Europeans’ fetishization of the Palestinians — whereby the more depraved the suicide bombers are the more brutalized they must have been by the Israelis — has, in effect, been globalized.
Anyone who’s mooched about the Muslim world for even brief amounts of time is struck by what David Pryce-Jones calls its “intellectual poverty”: It has a remarkable lack of curiosity about anything beyond its horizons. That hobbled it for centuries in its wars against the west. But our multicultural mindset is its mirror image: For isn’t the principle characteristic of “multiculturalism” its almost total lack of curiosity about other cultures? The multicultis make bliss of ignorance: You don’t need to know anything about Islam, you just have to feel warm and fluffy about it, and slap that “CO-EXIST” bumper sticker on your Subaru. If you want to know how little changed on 9/11, look at how it’s being observed in the nation’s schools.
– Mark Steyn, among many other things, writes “The Happy Warrior” column for National Review.
Five years. It’s incredible to think that five years have passed since that nightmare day. In one way, those hours of horror seem just like yesterday and in another, perhaps more horrific still, they seem like tomorrow.
It was never going to be a day when “everything” changed. Those days don’t exist. What did change, and changed most profoundly, was Americans’ idea that they could, if they so chose, somehow keep themselves at arm’s length from the rest of the world. That’s gone — and it’s gone for good. It was an idea that hung on — just — through the Cold War, preserved by the realization that in a contest between (reasonably) rational nations, deterrence generally works. Now that comfort has gone. The latest enemy is not made up of states (or not primarily anyway) but of individuals empowered by technology and, in some cases, a religious fanaticism that leaves them immune to the usual deterrents. Throw in the ease of global travel and the stage is well set for a repeat of that terrible morning.
Understanding this threat has changed most Americans. What hasn’t changed is American impatience. Having said that, I’m not sure that it should. This impatience, this restlessness, is a highly creative force. Nevertheless, in a prolonged struggle it can be a weakness, and it’s one that the other side will look to exploit.
– Andrew Stuttaford writes from New York.