‘National character does not change in a day,” wrote Charles Krauthammer in an essay marking the first anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “September 11 did not alter the American character, it revealed it. It allowed — it forced — the emergence of a bedrock America of courage, resolve, resourcefulness, and, above all, resilience.”
Reading the twentieth-anniversary commemorations of 9/11 that have filled our prestige newspapers and magazines in recent days, it might seem as if Krauthammer was describing not only another time but another country. Those pieces tell an altogether different story: not of pride and resilience but of guilt, pathos, regret, and exhaustion. The reckless, slapdash, and deadly American withdrawal from Afghanistan has only thickened the funereal atmosphere. That “bedrock America” of courage and grit? It is obscured behind a fog of self-loathing.
For example: “After 9/11, the U.S. Got Almost Everything Wrong,” says one headline in the Atlantic. “9/11 was a test. The books of the last two decades show how America failed,” reads the title of an essay in the Washington Post. “Winning Ugly” is the name of an article in Foreign Affairs. A headline in the Spectator (U.K.) asks, “Is America still worth fighting for?” (The implied answer is no.) New York magazine, of all places, is chockablock with hot takes arguing that the war on terrorism wasn’t worth it: “America’s greatest existential threat wasn’t terrorism”; “The case for Iraqi reparations”; “Bin Laden Won.” The headline of an opinion column in the Washington Post: “We best remember 9/11 by moving beyond it.”
No, we don’t. For starters, the terrorists won’t let us. Nor do most Americans seem all that ready to move “beyond” 9/11. Their solemn remembrance of that terrible day continues. And the journalists and public intellectuals who perform these exercises in self-abasement aren’t willing to give it up either. They would rather include the events of September 11 and the U.S. government’s response to it in their running indictment of American society and politics.
The worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history has been conscripted into the culture wars and turned into another symbol of everything that the credentialed classes do not like about the world around them. The pessimism and shame are felt even in the Oval Office. In his August 31 speech on Afghanistan, President Biden described the last 20 years as a tale of unrelenting woe, especially for the millions of men and women who have served in uniform: “A lot of our veterans and their families have gone through hell.” True — real and awful suffering cannot be denied. It is part of the story of the last two decades.
But it is not the whole story. A comprehensive narrative must also include the following: Since 9/11, an entire generation of Americans has donned the uniform, or worked in a civilian capacity, in a successful effort to prevent another mass-casualty terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Tragedy has been leavened by nobility, idealism, and self-sacrifice. The roll call of American heroism in the post-9/11 era begins with the firefighters who scaled the Twin Towers that Tuesday morning and continues through the sons and daughters of the fallen who have joined the military and intelligence services to deter and defeat America’s enemies. Their bravery is not to be diminished or pathologized. It is to be commended.
We owe this 9/11 Generation a great deal. I was not the only resident of New York City in the weeks after September 11 to have nightmares of more planes flying into skyscrapers. Nor am I alone when I recall the pervasive fear that accompanied the anthrax attacks the next month or the D.C. sniper rampage the following year. The threat loomed large of another massacre; of suicide bombings on the scale experienced by Israel during the contemporaneous Second Intifada; of terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. None of that happened.
Why? Because Americans acted. Those Americans, male and female, belonged to every race, every ethnicity, every religion, every creed, every sexual orientation. And they belonged to both political parties. The brightest stars among Republicans and Democrats — from Tom Cotton to Tammy Duckworth, from Dan Crenshaw to Jason Crow — belong to the 9/11 Generation. They may not agree on either the ends or the means of domestic and foreign policy. But they are joined by common citizenship and a mutual interest in the safety and prosperity of America. They ran toward the danger. And they deserve our profound gratitude.
The high cost of war bought safety for the homeland and a reduction in radical Islamic terrorism. Bin Laden wanted his holy warriors to collapse the American economy and drive us from the Arabian Peninsula. They failed. Not only did Osama bin Laden lose his mission and his life. His successors Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did too. These victories for freedom did not happen in a vacuum. It wasn’t special-pleading or guilt-tripping or an especially scathing diplomatic communiqué that ended Baghdadi’s reign of terror. It was Delta Force.
Which is why the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has been so dispiriting. It may resuscitate global jihad at the very moment when that ignoble cause was on the verge of defeat. It may revive the fighting spirit and grand ambition of localized and constrained terrorist groups just as America turns inward and aloof.
That danger makes the 20th anniversary of 9/11 an occasion not for intellectual browbeating but for patriotic resolve. It is the bedrock courage, resourcefulness, and resilience of the 9/11 Generation that will see America through her latest dark night of the soul. The enemy cannot win so long as we never tire, never waver, and never forget.
This column originally ran at the Washington Free Beacon.
PHOTO GALLERY: 9/11 Attacks