Ninety-six months ago, 19 Islamic terrorists — led by Mohamed Atta, organized by Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and ordered by Osama bin Laden — hijacked four American airliners. They destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and murdered 2,974 people. The al-Qaeda–planned attack was the most lethal on the American homeland in our history.
In response, the United States quickly attacked and removed the Taliban government that had offered sanctuary to the killers. About 15 months later, in March 2003, America successfully invaded Iraq, deposed the dictator Saddam Hussein, and fostered a constitutional government in his place.
At home, a new Department of Homeland Security oversaw fresh counterterrorism measures. The government stepped up wiretaps and email intercepts of suspected terrorists. It established military tribunals, continued renditions of jihadists abroad, and inaugurated Predator-drone assassinations of terrorists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Bush administration ordered the creation of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
All of these post-9/11 measures were debated in the congressional election campaigns of 2002, and during the presidential campaign of 2004. Incumbents responsible for such a muscular response to al-Qaeda were mostly reelected — given that, despite the steep human costs, the Taliban regime and Saddam Hussein were gone, democracies were in their places, and the United States had not suffered another attack when most experts had affirmed that such an event was inevitable.
In addition, almost immediately after the removal from power and later capture of Saddam Hussein, Pakistan put its nuclear proliferator, A. Q. Khan, under house arrest. Libya voluntarily surrendered its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and its facilities for manufacturing more. A peaceful “cedar revolution” in Lebanon led to the removal of long-standing Syrian occupation troops.
None of this was easy. Almost 5,000 Americans died in the two wars; over $1 trillion was spent. At home the country was torn apart in domestic acrimony. The last eight years have seen a resistance culture spring up, let by such as Ward Churchill, Michael Moore, Code Pink, Cindy Sheehan, and Joe Wilson — coupled with congressional fury in which senators have characterized our own troops as analogous to Pol Pot, Nazis, Communists, terrorists, and Saddam Hussein’s Baathists.
Today one-third of Democrats believe that President Bush was involved in the planning of September 11. Best-selling books have alleged that 9/11 was a planned government operation. Novels were published and movies screened envisioning the assassination of George W. Bush. Politicians as diverse as Robert Byrd, Al Gore, and John Glenn all compared the president or his policies to Nazis or Brownshirts. All that was in response to the losses in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo, in addition to the partisan advantage sought by discrediting the Bush presidency.
Now, on the eighth anniversary of the assault, the world has changed almost beyond belief — even if many circumstances that led to the attack on America have not. The Taliban regime and Saddam are still gone. Democracies still function in their place. America remains safe from attack. Yet rarely do we credit anyone for such facts.
Indeed, we are now in a post-9/11 sort of limbo. On the one hand, popular culture, the Democratic Party, the Democratic-led Congress, and Barack Obama have at various times denied the utility or morality of Guantanamo, elements of the Patriot Act, rendition, military tribunals, Predator attacks, or the conduct and very necessity of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The new post-9/11 narrative is not so much that a radical fringe of fundamentalist Muslims had established nefarious relationships of mutual interest and benefit with Middle Eastern dictatorships in order to terrorize Western targets, but that an insensitivity and chauvinism on the part of the United States had driven proud Muslims through desperation and angst into Islam’s radical fringes.
This narrative proved to be a winner in 2006 and 2008 for both congressional Democrats and Barack Obama. In varying ways, during the luxury of quiet from terrorism at home, they promised a respite from Bush’s costly optional wars, his unnecessary and largely unconstitutional “war on terror,” and the general notion of an us/them dichotomy between the West and radical Islam. Candidate Obama at one time called for all American combat brigades out of Iraq by March 2008, repeal of much of the anti-terrorism protocols, and a rapid closing of Guantanamo.
But reality was far different from rhetoric. America, after all, was still safe in a manner that no one envisioned after the 9/11 attacks — and perhaps for a reason as well. So if Barack Obama and his supporters once damned tribunals, wiretaps and email surveillance, renditions, and Predator assassinations, now in power they strangely began to approve of, or at least tolerate, most of them.
The detention facility at Guantanamo is deemed abhorrent, but its continued presence suggests that even its critics acknowledge a certain utility. Iraq was written off as “lost” by opponents, but over 130,000 Americans still shepherd its fragile democracy. The “good” and older war in Afghanistan is now more violent and more controversial than the relatively quiet “bad” conflict in Iraq. Apparently, eight years of the Bush policies in reaction to 9/11 are as silently ratified as they are publicly condemned — an Orwellian moment in which “Bush did it” has become a public slur, while a privately appreciated fact.
What lies ahead? The present schizophrenia, I think, is untenable. The public is happy that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mass murderer of September 11, was waterboarded and thereafter expounded on his terrorist network; the Obama administration, in contrast, believes that all those who extracted that information in the bleak months following 9/11 should themselves be investigated and, if need be, tried and punished.
For the last two years, polls in the Middle East have shown a radical drop in support for both bin Laden and the tactic of suicide bombing. We in response have apologized to the Muslim world and magnified its glories at the precise moment when, of its own accord, it has turned on its radicals, who have brought death, destruction — and defeat — to all in their midst.
Few Americans now support our continued presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. And yet even fewer ever thought that the Taliban and Saddam would be quickly dispatched, and two constitutional governments would still be surviving in their absence.
In short, we are reaching a critical moment of clarity. We continue practices that we say are either futile or wrong, and we demonize their architects in speech even as we ratify them through action. At some date, the Democrats and Obama may well close Guantanamo, try our own CIA interrogators, cease tribunals and renditions, ground the Predators, pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq, reach out to Iran and Syria, and distance the United States from Israel.
At that point, when liberal deeds at last match liberal rhetoric, the great 9/11 debate of the last eight years — are we still in lethal danger from radical elements of Islam or not? — will finally be decided by either our continued safety or another September 11.
– NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.