Strangely, both the media and the public rarely mention some of the most important aftershocks in the decade since 9/11. Here are some representative examples of landmark events that to this day remain mostly undiscussed.
1. No more falling skyscrapers? Few imagined that the United States could go an entire decade without another major terrorist attack — other than freelancing jihadists’ killing members of the American armed forces. Almost monthly, U.S. authorities have thwarted serial attempts to cause mayhem on airliners, bridges, city squares, shopping malls, and high-rises. It was almost as if the more we caricatured the often silly security measures at the airport, blasted Guantanamo Bay, and ridiculed renditions, the more we assumed that our security, initially thought permanently imperiled (“not if, but when”), was once again our birthright. Someone somewhere did something that kept us safe, but we were strangely afraid to acknowledge that there was any utility in the very protocols and foreign operations that had weakened our enemies to the point of an inability to replicate 9/11. If immediately after the attacks in New York and Washington we accepted that the old security was no longer possible, soon thereafter we started assuming not only that it was natural, but that, in organic fashion, it had reappeared through spontaneous regeneration.
2. The greatest political turnabout of the age.
If one had collated everything candidate Obama declaimed about the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism policies from autumn of 2007 to November 2008, then one would have expected a President Obama to dismantle the entire Bush-Cheney national-security apparatus upon entering office, to pull out of Iraq (he originally said this should be done by March 2008, no less), and to keep our military out of the Middle East. Instead, Obama retained Secretary of Defense Gates, stuck to the Bush-Petraeus withdrawal plan in Iraq, expanded Predator-drone attacks in Waziristan, surged into Afghanistan, bombed Libya, and embraced everything from Guantanamo to renditions. That about-face, I think, was the most radical political development of the last quarter-century, and was treated with near silence by the media. It was as if Moveon.org, Code Pink, and Michael Moore had simply vanished from the face of the earth sometime around January 2009. The notion today that a canonized Michael Moore would be invited to a lookout perch at the 2012 Democratic Convention or that Moveon.org would run another “General Betray Us” ad is surreal. A cynic would say that the anti–War on Terror movement did its job in helping to elect Barack Obama, and then moved on, so to speak, when Barack Obama likewise did his job in continuing his predecessor’s anti-terrorism policies.
3. The taboo enemy dead. After Vietnam, who would wish to count enemy dead? To a 21st-century public, such terrible arithmetic might seem macabre, intrinsically politicized, or simply irrelevant in war. The age-old idea that killing die-hard enemies wins wars and ensures the peace is for some antithetical to the spirit of counterinsurgency doctrine, at least superficially so. Few would ever channel William Tecumseh Sherman’s frightening remarks that to win the Civil War the Union army would have to kill or humiliate several thousands of the Southern “cavalier” class, whose livelihoods depended on slavery, whose zeal had started the war, and whose boasts of martial superiority had galvanized the Confederate belief that its fighters were far better than the Northerners and could trump inferior resources.
Tens of thousands of hard-core jihadists from as far away as Algeria, Chechnya, Egypt, the Gulf monarchies, Libya, Syria, and Yemen obeyed the calls for jihad issued by the likes of Osama bin Laden, Dr. Zawahiri, and Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi. They flocked to al-Qaeda’s “main theater” of jihad in Iraq — and in Baghdad and throughout Anbar Province were killed in droves by the U.S. military and its Iraqi allies. Only off the record will military officers confess that the eventual American success in Iraq was due in some part to doing away with murderous jihadists and impressing the local population with our martial superiority. And even off the record, few will suggest that the absence of such killers from the world’s pool of hard-core terrorists may well have made life safer at home. We are in a new age when we “beat” or “subdue” the enemy but do not admit that we do that often through killing him. The Iraq War has become a story about troop levels, hearts and minds, and training the Iraqis, but not much about a shooting war in which thousands of jihadists lost.