Seven years ago we suffered the worst attack on the American homeland in our history. The material damage proved far greater than the 1814 British burning of Washington, the human losses more grievous than the almost 2,400 Americans lost at Pearl Harbor.
Years later, we tend to forget all the dimensions of that sinister homicidal bombing of our institutions. Radical Islam brazenly signaled that it need not have missiles or sophisticated bombers to burn 16 acres in the heart of Manhattan and set the Pentagon afire. Instead, it could turn from the inside out our own technology against us, in a manner that we were scarcely aware of — and in an iconic fashion at the heart of our greatest cities, ensuring collective psychological trauma that trumped even the terrible loss in blood and treasure.
Some bewildered Americans offered apologies that either the attacks were tit-for-tat payback for America’s overreaching global presence, or — more preposterously still — that our record against Muslims incited such hatred. And so yet another cultural war broke out over the “causes” of 9/11. Only with difficulty were the American people reminded that we had, in fact, helped Muslims in Bosnia, and in Kosovo against European Christian Serbia, and in Somalia against gangs and thugs, and in Afghanistan against the Russians, and in Kuwait against Saddam, and that the record of the Chinese, or Indians, or Russians using force against Muslims was far more frequent and cruel than our own.
Only with difficulty was the case made that the jihadists had no legitimate cause, but rather hated modernism, globalization, and Westernization — and were either abetted in their fury by illegitimate Middle East dictatorships to deflect public unrest, or even bought off by such dictators to turn their furor westward.
We forget now, seven years later, just how many scolded us, alleging (from the Right) that our liberalism and decadence, and our falling away from God, or (from the Left) our help to Israel, our overseas bases, and our need for oil caused 9/11, rather than the devilish hatred of bin Laden and the sick mind of Mohammed Atta and his ilk — emboldened by the hunch that America, as in the past, either could not or would not retaliate in serious fashion to serial terrorists attacks against its people and property.
The cruel irony of the terrorists’ methods was not limited to inversion of our modern technology: in reaction to Mohamed Atta’s breezy walk through our American airport security, tens of millions of Americans, billions of times over, were stalled in security lines, taking off their shoes, and, in humiliating fashion, undoing their belts and emptying their purses.
Yet given the nature of the postmodern liberal West, the more we checked immigrants from the Middle East to ensure that there were no more wolves in sheep’s clothing, and the more we monitored charities and mosques that had at times sponsored fringe Islamic hate groups, all the more we were pilloried as illiberal, as extremist on the defensive as the terrorists had been on the offensive. Thousands of hours were wasted refuting empty charges that a Timothy McVeigh’s isolated terrorist attack in Oklahoma City was the moral or factual equivalent of years of constant Islamic terrorism, worldwide, that had killed thousands of innocents.
The more we sought to prevent “another 9/11” through increased security, and the more therein we found success in preventing another attack, so too the more we faced yet another paradox: renewed security prompted a sense of complacence which in turn questioned the need for increased security in the first place.
In short order, civil libertarians — enjoying the unforeseen hiatus from the promised repeated attacks — accused the administration of unduly terrifying the nation. And if they could not precisely explain to the American people how their daily lives were now stripped of constitutional protection, they nevertheless were able to charge, as the peace here at home continued, that our government police needed more policing than did Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Critics demanded an end to wiretaps, FISA protocols, Guantánamo, and the Patriot Act. Yet when a Democratic majority took over the Congress, there was a strange unwillingness to repeal such measures — almost as if the louder they charged homeland security agencies with unconstitutional transgressions, all the more they paused, sought no legislative repeal, and suspected that the American people at least felt that through such despised protocols they had thereby in part been kept safe.
The question arose: Against whom, and when, and where, and how to hit back? Voices of doom answered that the Taliban’s Afghanistan was not the al-Qaeda perpetrator, but rather the graveyard of both British and Russian imperial troops, given its peaks, snow, warlords, and tribal badlands. Yet within five months following 9/11, the Taliban and al-Qaeda alike were routed to Pakistan and a constitutional government was in place. And while the effort to pacify Afghanistan still continues, so does the constitutional government in Kabul, which is rebuilding the country rather than hiding out in the caves of Waziristan.
It would be cruel to relate by name all those prominent Americans — including politicians, think-tankers, pundits, and military analysts — who felt once, and vehemently so, that the rogue and genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein — in violation of UN accords and 1991 armistice agreements, and the object of 12 years of no-fly zones — was an impediment to the need to change the conditions that had fostered 9/11. Yet suffice it to say that, when Iraq went from a brilliant three-week victory to someone else’s flawed and bloody five-year occupation, almost no prior supporter of the need to remove Saddam could be found. It was not just that most changed their minds as the pulse of the battlefield changed; but rather that many prior supporters insidiously convinced themselves that in the now distant past they had never advocated such a supposedly preposterous war in the first place.
Seven years later, hundreds of billions of dollars have been expended; over 4,000 Americans have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan; and America’s preexisting cultural wounds have had their thin scabs torn off by acrimony over warring abroad and security at home. And yet herein lies the greatest paradox of all that followed from September 11. If no one on September 12, 2001 thought it possible that the United States would not be hit again by a terrorist attack of similar magnitude, here we are still free from a major terrorist assault over 2,500 days later.
Bin Laden and Dr. Zawahiri are still hiding out in the caves of tribal Pakistan, in fear of daylight sorties by deadly American drones, but counting on safety from coalition ground attack through the auspices of their wink-and-nod — and nuclear — Islamic Pakistani hosts. The top cadres of al-Qaeda, nonetheless, are now either mostly dead, captured, or in hiding. When al-Qaeda now whines in its infomercials, the complaint is about Shiite Iran who supposedly helped the infidel Americans, not the Americans themselves who alone sent them to the caves of Pakistan and defeated them in, and routed them from, Iraq.
In response, polls reveal that Middle Eastern support for bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the tactic of suicide bombing are at an all-time low. Constitutional governments remain in power in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Al-Qaeda has suffered a terrible material and public-relations defeat in the heart of the ancient caliphate.
While many rightly point to lapses in the conduct of the Iraq war, faulty intelligence, and wrongheaded emphasis on supposed arsenals of WMDs rather than the casus belli outlined in the 23 writs authorized by the Congress, few can answer a more existential question: Had we not met, defeated, and humiliated tens of thousands of jihadists on the battlefields of Iraq, where else might we have inflicted such a terrible defeat on our enemies — given the nuclear sanctuary of Pakistan, the bellicose governments of Iran and Syria, and the duplicity of the Gulf monarchies? And if we had not killed, captured, scattered, and turned our enemies abroad, how then might we have prevented them from coming back here to attack us at home? And are the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, as in the past, aiding anti-American terrorists, or helping to hunt them down?
The truth is, we chased al-Qaeda from Iraq and Afghanistan and it is now in lunatic fashion chasing Danish cartoonists, European novelists, and opera producers as it cuts the fingers off smokers, tries to cover up the genitalia of animals, and looks for the mentally ill to strap on suicide belts.
Long after Jacques Chirac, Michael Moore, Gerhard Schroeder, and Cindy Sheehan have come, gone, and nearly disappeared, a General David Petraeus and thousands of American soldiers and diplomats like him remain. George W. Bush is reviled, in part because of an inability to articulate what the war against terror was, and what it was for. But Bush hatred has been reduced to a sort of politically correct trinket, worn around the neck of the clannish critics as a reminder of the President’s ineptness in expression or supposedly dangerous views — without examining what others might have done to achieve the same results of achieving freedom from further attack.
But in years to come it may well be said that the president kept us safe for years when none thought he could, and removed the two most odious regimes in the Middle East and replaced them with the two best — and confronted a confident and ascendant radical Islam and left it demoralized and discredited among its own host Arab and Muslim constituents.
In the present toxic environment, all of that is not to be spoken — but all that has nevertheless happened since September 11.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.