Politics & Policy

On 9/11 — A Look Back, a Look Forward

The National September 11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York City.
Then as now, the Arab world’s self-induced pathologies cannot be cured by American self-doubt.

September 11, 2001, was not just a tragedy, but rather a willful act of war by radical Islamists who hate Western civilization and the American version of it in particular. They achieved, by their cunning and our laxity, a horrendous loss of American life. Indeed, they did something that no enemy had succeeded at since the War of 1812: bringing the war home to the U.S. and inflicting human, material, and economic damage on a colossal scale.

They were emboldened by our prior inability to respond to provocations. A 20-year cycle of Islamist-inspired violence from Tehran to Lebanon to the 1993 World Trade Center attack to the USS Cole in aggregate had convinced Bin Laden not that the United States was confident in its past fair treatment toward Muslims (cf. the saving of Muslims from Kuwait to Bosnia and Kosovo to Somalia), but instead that somehow it was unable to define its values, much less retaliate against its enemies. The 9/11 attack was apparently the terrible wages of our uncertainty, self-doubt, and paralysis.

#ad#Yet in the twelve years since that attack, the American people rebounded in an astounding way. Islamists have not been successful in matching that devastation, although, on more than 50 occasions, plots have been uncovered that reminded us that the terrorists were certainly trying to trump 9/11. For all the current internal acrimony over Guantanamo, renditions, drones, fighting in the Afghan badlands, or going head-to-head with al-Qaeda in Anbar Province and Fallujah, we should remember that those costly post-9/11 anti-terrorism protocols and forward operations abroad thwarted Bin Laden and his successors. Indeed, he died as his own proverbial weak horse, with sinking popularity, in personal decadence at his computer console, and largely irrelevant in the Middle East.

A new generation of his successors now wishes to reboot the war. They see an opening in American weariness and pre-9/11-like misplaced guilt. They are resuming the tired Bin Laden boilerplate that the misery of the Islamic world, and the Arab cosmos in particular, is due to American imperialism and neocolonialism rather than their own internal pathologies — tribalism, statism, gender apartheid, religious fundamentalism and intolerance, authoritarianism, and anti-Semitism.

That perfect storm of Middle Eastern failure, not the U.S., has prevented the Arab community from achieving the sort of successful paradigms for growth and freedom now common from Chile to South Korea. The Arab Winter reminds us again how hard it is in that part of the world to avoid the extremes of theocracy and military authoritarianism, when the proverbial Islamic street has not yet embraced the necessary shifts in ideology and spirit that alone can lead to a constitutional moderate alternative — and with it a confident place among the family of nations. We can hope and pray for a true Arab Spring renaissance, but we must prepare for something darker and colder.

I end on another troubling note. For over seven years after 9/11, most Americans accepted the explanation that what and who we are, rather than what we might have done, prompted the Islamists to try to murder Americans. Yet the newly elected Barack Obama apparently disagreed. From the very beginning of his tenure — as voiced in his inaugural Al Arabiya interview, his prior Foreign Affairs essay, his Cairo speech, his so-called apology tour, and his administration’s surreal euphemisms for Islamist terrorism, and as underscored now by his unserious deadlines, redlines, and withdrawal dates — he sought to win over radical Muslims on the false narrative that the Bush administration, and indeed earlier administrations as well, had somehow been insensitive to Islamic concerns. Thereby, we were in part supposedly culpable for many of the tensions in the Middle East, and for the Arab world’s anger at America so often expressed in mindless violence.

Insensitive videos, workplace insensitivity, undue FBI surveillance, harsh nomenclature, an inability to understand the positive side to jihad – all that and more had supposedly prompted anti-American violence, not self-induced pathologies that explained both the terrorists’ own self-hatred and their hatred of us.

As remedy, in the words of Obama himself, his own unique background, indeed his very name, together with his courageous acceptance of the charge of past American arrogance, would work a sort of magic. America could bask in his reflected glory, as the Arab world’s admiration of Obama would rub off on the rest of us as well. The result would be that the seas of tensions and the rising temperatures of distrust would at last subside, given the arrival of a Nobel laureate now reining in the erstwhile military-industrial complex.

Of course, that hand-wringing neither curbed the terrorists’ attempts to strike again nor won us friends in the Middle East. We are as unpopular there as ever. And we have now won the additional recompense of being seen not as unpredictable and dangerous, but as predictably weak and timid.

Nothing good can come of that recipe, and nothing has. This twelfth anniversary of 9/11 should remind the president that the first obligation of his office is to keep the American people safe, and to consider their own national interests, both realist and humanitarian, foremost.

Unfortunately, the present therapeutic trajectory will lead nowhere but to a repeat of 9/11 as we insidiously squander the deterrence acquired the hard way in the tough years following 9/11. On this twelfth anniversary we are in a lull — perhaps analogous to John F. Kennedy’s after his disastrous Vienna summit, with a rendezvous with Cuban missiles on the horizon, or perhaps to that of a confused Jimmy Carter about to be confronted in Tehran with the dividends of his past arrogance and self-righteousness.

Let us hope that we return to the measures that kept us safe, and drop the rhetoric and attitude that will once again tempt our enemies to try something as stupid as it will be dangerous.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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