Politics & Policy

Lessons in War

Reflections on 9/11, six years later.

On that day, we watched tape of the doomed in suits diving head first from the burning floors, hoping to splatter on roofs rather than crush and kill incoming firefighters — as some tragically did.

I remember reading about the last hours in the stairwell of the Cassandra FBI agent John O’Neill, who chose to go back into the inferno. His year-long, near solitary race to save us against the evil of the al Qaeda planners Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh came to an end that day — and with it O’Neill himself.

And I remember reading the accounts of a smiling bin Laden, fresh off from buying his fifth wife for $5,000 (a 15-year-old girl no less). At that very moment in Afghanistan, always the inveterate liar, he was haughty after his recent cowardly murder of the far better fighter Massoud.

That day bin Laden snickered to the radio reports of his 9/11 jihadists, now holding up a finger for each plane’s impending crash to his adoring acolytes in Afghanistan — and soon to be alternately denying culpability in his fear, then boasting of it in his hubris.

Then there were the incomprehensible statements of our own that followed — of Michael Moore, the later darling at the Democratic Convention, claiming that a Democratic city’s blue-state, anti-Bush voters ipso facto should have won an exemption from the killers’ target list.

We heard too from the now apparently warped novelist Norman Mailer, at last relieved that his aesthetic skyline was cleared of the bothersome looming towers (“two huge buck teeth”) — and with them, for Ward Churchill at least, the ashes of the “Little Eichmanns,” of his “technocrats of empire.”

We remember the firemen and police who went up into the towers even as they came down. And always there were the nightlong, lit-up scenes of the construction and rescue workers who brought a majestic dignity to the macabre task of sifting for hundreds in the detritus of lower New York.

We keep thinking as well that if there had not been a Todd Beamer and a few kindred brave souls on United Flight 93, there would have been no more Capitol at all, its century-old dome instead reduced to smithereens like that of the golden mosque of Samara. It perhaps would now still be sitting there, six years later, a quarter rebuilt amid scaffolds, its restoration unfinished as it was during the Civil War — and its smoldering skeleton plastered on every poster in Gaza, in DVDs sold in all the bazaars of Pakistan.

September 11 was not the first and won’t be the last terrorist assault on our citizens and culture. And the subsequent factionalism and left/right bickering over the proper course to defeat the jihadists — whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, the courts, at the Hague, or the United Nations — did not originate solely after 9/11.

But the day reminded us that for a near-quarter century prior, only luck and the impotence — not the intent — of radical Muslims had prevented the murder of Americans on such a horrific scale. It re-taught to us, as would surely a second or third such attack, that in war there aren’t really good choices. Instead, once the fighting breaks out, only the bad choices either of incurring casualties and expense to prevent greater such losses to our civilization in the future, or (far worse) of inaction in hopes of searching for reason or decency where they are not to be found, remain.

Bin Laden’s killers tore off a great scab on September 11; at once they exposed to billions the evil of radical Islam and with it the Western world’s shock, fright, and difficulty in confronting it and defeating it. That uncertainty ultimately does not arise from our enemies, but from within ourselves — this strange disease of thinking we fight back too much when we often do too little.

It was the particularly evil genius of bin Laden to see not that we are militarily weak as he alleged — indeed the United States is more powerful than ever — but that we are apologetic over the source of our bounty and the reasons for our success, to the point of a collective stasis.

The more we push for democratic change abroad, the more the democracy-hating terrorists slander us that we do not. The more we accommodate the religion and culture of detainees, the more the beheaders and bombers cry to the world that we are savage while musing among themselves that we are weak. The more that we tolerate the great asymmetry of reciprocity between Islam and the West; the more we are supposed to apologize for just that tolerance and liberality. The more we pay for outrageously priced oil, the more we are to concede that we are stealing it.

Our shock, and again their insight, is not that they level such absurd charges, but that they do so in such utter confidence that they will find a receptive audience in the West, an audience that has the desire and ability to curtail the American response.

We laugh that on this sixth anniversary a clownish Bin Laden, in dyed chin-whiskers no less, urges us from a cave in Waziristan to read more Chomsky and Scheuer. We laugh that radical Islam hates us for global warming, corporate profits, and high-priced mortgages. We laugh that its jihadists, as a result of these American “sins,” were forced to kill us for the Neocons, and Richard Perle, and Hiroshima, and the 19th-century Indian wars, and all the other American crimes that Hollywood and the universities have globally peddled into a lucrative industry. But the laugh is not that fascists would so clumsily crib our Left to justify their killing, but that they are convinced that they could do so in such amateurish fashion to such great effect.

So is the joke on them or on us?

Bin Laden and his evil Rasputin Dr. Zawahiri were confident on September 11 that such guilt and self-loathing in our hearts could be seasoned, and that it could then be harvested through their own arts of revisionism, victimization, and lies. And consequently within a brief six years of his murdering, our own voices — indeed the very elites of the West — in the luxury of calm before the next attack, are often emboldened to proclaim that the government of America, not the terrorists abroad, is the real danger.

The great lesson of September 11 was not that the jihadists ever believed that they could kill us all. Rather, they trusted that enough of the West and indeed enough of us here in America, might at the end of the day declare that we had it coming.

In this long war, that belief was — and is — far deadlier even than an unhinged murderer at the controls of an airliner.

–Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson fellow in military history and classics at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. This September he is teaching at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan as the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History.

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