Five years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have not been slaughtered a second time on U.S. soil. That is no small achievement. It has come about not because our enemies have been merciful or because they consider our behavior improved. It has come about because we have begun to understand that we have enemies, that they pose a serious threat, and that we must fight them.
Most Americans did not comprehend that on Sept. 10, 2001. When the Cold War ended with a whimper, we wanted to believe peace would prevail. We shrank the military and encouraged the intelligence community to give up such unsavory practices as running spies, sparking coups and making life dangerous for despots.
Experts advised political leaders not to be overly concerned about terrorism or militant Islamism. On July 10, 2001, Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA and State Department terrorism analyst, lamented in the pages of the New York Times that too many Americans had been persuaded that terrorism ‘is becoming more widespread and lethal,’ too many feared that the ‘United States is the most popular target of terrorists’ and that ‘extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.’ He declared: ‘None of these beliefs are based in fact.’
About the same time, John Esposito, an influential professor at Georgetown University, wrote: “Bin Laden is the best thing that has come along … if you want to paint Islamist activism as a threat. There’s a danger in making bin Laden the poster boy of global terrorism, and not realizing that there are a lot of other forces involved in global terrorism.”
It required thousands of deaths on a single day to demolish such fantasies. Few still doubt that terrorists — claiming to derive their legitimacy from Islamic doctrine — seek America’s destruction and believe that access to high technology provides them a means not available to previous generations. But the arguments over what we must do to defend ourselves remain intense, bitter and partisan.
On Tuesday, the White House released what it called an “updated” National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. The document asserts — rightly, I believe — that America is “at war with a transnational movement … extremist organizations, networks and individuals — and their state and non-state supporters — which have in common that they exploit Islam and use terrorism for ideological ends.”
Somewhat less accurately, the Strategy asserts that the terrorists “distort the idea of jihad into a call for violence and murder …” As scholar Daniel Pipes and others have documented, the original meaning of “jihad” was “holy war,” in the literal sense. It was by the sword that Islam was spread from Arabia to Africa, Asia, and Europe. Those Muslims who now use ‘jihad’ to imply only a spiritual ‘struggle’ should be commended and supported: By promoting such reform they risk the wrath of the militant Islamists — which means they risk their lives.
The Strategy also indulgences in wishful thinking when it counts as a success “a broad and growing global consensus that the deliberate targeting of innocents is never justified by any calling or cause.” In fact, much of the world has adopted the relativist view, espoused by the Reuters news agency: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
The “updated” Strategy calls advancing democracy a “long-term antidote to the ideology of terrorism.” Left unspoken is an acknowledgment that, in the short run, Islamists have skillfully used increased freedom and democratic reforms to expand their power and deprive non-Islamists of civil rights.
Finally, however, the White House Strategy gets to the heart of the matter: the need to use force against those who understand nothing else. It states bluntly that to win this war, the United States must do everything possible to ‘kill or capture the terrorists; deny them safe haven and control of any nation; prevent them from gaining access to WMDs.
Speaking to U.S. military officers this week, President Bush added that those plotting against America and other free nations “have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?”
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, few people were paying attention, and those who did misunderstood what they heard. Five years later, it would be useful if Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, Americans and Europeans, could spend less energy fighting one another and more defending their common civilization from its mortal enemies. If anyone has a better plan than the “updated” Strategy that Bush has offered, now would be a good time to reveal it.
– Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.