Two terrible September days sum up the first decade of the new American millennium.
The first, of course, was Sept. 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden’s suicide terrorists that morning hit the Pentagon, knocked down the World Trade Center, killed 3,000 Americans, and left in their wake 16 acres of ash in Manhattan and $1 trillion in economic losses. Two invasions, into Afghanistan and Iraq, followed — along with a more nebulous third “war on terror” against Islamic radicalism generally.
America was soon torn apart over both the causes and the proper reaction to the attacks. The Left often cited America’s foreign interventions and Middle East policies as provocations. And it soon bitterly opposed the war in Iraq, and even more adamantly decried the antiterrorism protocols that followed 9/11.
The Right countered that only unwarranted hatred of the U.S. prompted the carnage. The best way, then, to prevent more Islamic terrorism was to go on the offensive abroad against regimes that sponsored terrorism, whether the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. New security protocols and laws at home were likewise needed to prevent another major terrorist onslaught.
But a decade later, the unforeseen had happened. More than 30 major attempts to trump the 9/11 attacks have all failed. Across the globe, radical Islam is in disarray. The U.S. military killed bin Laden. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remains in hiding. The Arab world’s two most prominent murderous lunatics, Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, are dead. Middle Eastern theocracies and dictatorships either have fallen or now totter.
For all our internal bickering, the Obama administration continued almost all of George W. Bush’s antiterrorism policies. Guantanamo is still open. The Patriot Act remains in effect. Predator drone assassinations have increased tenfold. The subject of military tribunals, renditions, and preventive detention now elicits yawns.
For Vice President Biden, the Iraq war would prove his administration’s “great achievement.” For President Obama, another former opponent of the war, the effort to remove Saddam Hussein and to foster constitutional government in his place was an “extraordinary achievement” — one in which America birthed “a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” George W. Bush could not have said it better.
On quite a different day seven years later — Sept. 14, 2008 — the huge investment firm Lehman Brothers declared that it was broke, as the subprime-mortgage industry collapsed like a house of cards. The stock market continued a plunge that had begun a year earlier, with the market losing nearly half of its value from September 2007 to December 2008. Eventually, some $8 trillion worth of Americans’ home and retirement equity was wiped out.
The Left blamed the innate greed of Wall Street, whose modern buccaneers had recklessly endangered the banking system in search of obscene billion-dollar profits. The Right placed greater blame on the federal government, whose unhinged effort to ensure everyone the chance to buy a home resulted in guarantees for mortgage loans that could not be honored and should never have been written.
Yet three years later, there is general agreement over what followed from September 14. The American financial system survived. In contrast, Europe’s as we once knew it probably will not. Both Democrats and Republicans are now talking about saving money and paying off debts — not borrowing more trillions. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street reflect a similar anger at an out-of-touch Washington technocracy. The former’s participants were madder at big-government nincompoops who warped and manipulated free markets. The latter’s protesters were more furious at Wall Street investors who did the same.
After a decade of tragedy in Iraq, the stalemate in Afghanistan, the $9 trillion added to the federal debt, the continuing downturn, and the destruction of home and retirement equity, the United States did not unravel. Iraq did not end in a horrendous defeat. Bin Laden did not pull off any more 9/11s. Our constitutional freedoms were not lost. There was not a Great Depression following the financial panic. And our rivals now find themselves in more trouble than do we.
Americans will never agree on the causes of, and the reactions to, September 11 and September 14. But some day, after the present acrimony recedes, they will at least appreciate why, in an existential sense, their country survived both of those awful September days.
Quite simply, no other people has proved as resilient and self-critical, and no other constitution as stable and politically brilliant, as ours.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.