Why did radical Islamic terrorists kill almost 3,000 Americans a decade ago?
Few still believe the old myth that U.S. foreign policy or support for Israel logically earned us Osama bin Laden’s wrath. After all, the U.S. throughout the 1990s had saved Islamic peoples from Bosnia and Kosovo to Somalia and Kuwait. Russia and China, in contrast, had oppressed or killed tens of thousands of their own Muslims without much fear of provoking al-Qaeda.
Moreover, thousands of Arabs have been killed recently, but by their own Libyan and Syrian governments, not Israeli Defense Forces. Al-Qaeda still issues death threats to Americans even though its original pretexts for going to war — such as U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia — have long been irrelevant.
On this ten-year anniversary of 9/11, no one has yet refuted the general truth that bin Laden tried to hijack popular Arab discontent over endemic poverty and self-induced misery. In cynical Hitlerian fashion, al-Qaeda’s propagandists sought to blame the mess of the Arab Middle East on Jews and foreigners, rather than seeking to address homegrown corrupt kleptocracies, inefficient statism, indigenous tribalism, gender apartheid, and religious fundamentalism and intolerance.
Past Western appeasement of terrorism only convinced the manipulative bin Laden that he might kill Westerners without much fear of retaliation, as he presented himself to the Islamic street as the new Saladin who had humbled the Western infidel.
Another post-9/11 myth assured us that George W. Bush foolishly squandered a rare national unity by enacting unlawful and unnecessary homeland-security measures and starting wasteful and unwinnable wars. The myth seems to suggest that if only we had not gone into Iraq or opened Guantanamo, we would still be at peace and, left and right alike, flying American flags from our cars’ antennas.
But we know that this theory is largely a fable. From 2001 to 2008, almost every domestic and foreign security expert assured us that the next 9/11 was not a matter of “if,” but only of “when.” Yet ten years later, there has not been a single comparable terrorist attack, despite dozens of foiled efforts to shoot and blow up Americans. What happened?
The Patriot Act, renditions, tribunals, preventive detention, new bothersome security measures, and the use of Predator drones have all weakened al-Qaeda and have made it difficult to attack Americans at home. For all the acrimony over Afghanistan and Iraq, tens of thousands of jihadists were killed abroad, and consensual governments that fight terrorists still survive in place of dictatorships.
And where now are the likes of Michael Moore, Cindy Sheehan, Moveon.org, Code Pink, and the entire anti-war movement that for years dominated the news, assuring us that we had lost our freedoms at home and caused only mayhem abroad?
The truth is they mostly dropped out of the news when Barack Obama was elected president. Apparently these loud megaphones had all along been more interested in partisan politics than principled criticism. In one of the strangest turnabouts in modern political history, fierce anti-war and anti-administration critic Barack Obama, upon taking the office of the presidency, either embraced or expanded almost all of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism policies.
Obama also left mostly unchanged U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and joined a third Middle East war by bombing Libya. Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden boasted that a calm Iraq could be one of the administration’s “greatest achievements.” In 2012, there will be no Obama reelection commercials bragging about the promised closure of Guantanamo Bay, but plenty taking credit for killing bin Laden inside Pakistan, a country where we have increased targeted drone assassinations fivefold since 2009.
President Obama, unlike candidate Obama, understood that the past unpopular U.S. measures kept us safe for seven years, and so had to be continued. He also guessed that when he put his own brand on these once widely caricatured but necessary anti-terrorism measures, the furor that had plagued the country from 2003 to 2008 would simply end in a whimper. And he was absolutely right on both counts.
Conservatives were once demonized for George Bush’s “smoke ’em out” and “dead or alive” tough talk about the War on Terror. Liberals were caricatured for Obama’s “overseas contingency operations” and “man-caused disasters” touchy-feely euphemisms. But the unspoken truth of the decade following 9/11 is that, for all the left and right talking points, Americans institutionalized policies and protocols that so far have kept us safe from another murderous attack.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.