National Security & Defense

Twenty Years Ago, the World Changed

The towers of the World Trade Center pour smoke after being struck by hijacked commercial aircraft, September 11, 2001. (Brad Rickerby/Reuters)

Twenty years ago, on a brilliantly clear early-fall morning, four airliners hijacked by terrorists crashed into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center Towers, and a Pennsylvania field. Almost 3,000 innocent Americans were killed; the damage, heaviest in New York City, ran into the billions of dollars.

It was the dawn of a new and awful world. The attack happened to come on the second-to-last day of NR’s production schedule. The editors scrubbed the existing cover and ran the first words of the lead editorial under the headline “At War.”

Several of the fears that arose on that day have not materialized. There was no follow-on attack of comparable magnitude, much less a wave of them. Sensible precautions and intelligence work have kept travel and city centers, nervous systems of our way of life, almost entirely secure. The terrorist attacks that did follow — in Bali, London, Mumbai, and Paris, as well as places in the United States — have been, however deadly, smaller in scale, the work of terror commandos, or ad hoc volunteers inspired to aid the cause.

That cause — a world governed by fundamentalist Islam — has not attracted a significant following in the United States. Most American Muslims reject it as horrific or incredible or both. Assimilation, however hobbled by multiculturalism and by the evangelism of radical religious leaders, still works. The situation among Muslim communities in Europe, more insular and encouraged to stay so by parties of the Left that depend on their votes, is worse.

America’s short-term response to 9/11 was characteristic. We threw everything at the problem, with dramatic results, accompanied by much waste and many mistakes. Seconded by our NATO allies, we toppled the terrorists’ Afghan hosts in short order. Our new calculation of risks — suppose terrorists got nuclear or chemical weapons? — led us to topple Saddam Hussein, who had used the latter and was believed by our intelligence agencies to be pursuing the former.

Saddam’s nukes turned out to be a mirage. Rather than find a quick exit, we settled into a long occupation, costing trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives. That decision has understandably been the subject of frequent second-guessing. Having decapitated Iraq, however, we could not have simply left it in chaos. And the costs, as considerable as they were, have obscured the benefits of our action. A bad piece was removed from the region’s board. Established Sunni states, still able to rely on Saddam as a shield, would scarcely have ventured a rapprochement with Israel.

For many years the consensus among critics of the Iraq War (most of whom had supported it initially) was that the smart war worth fighting was in Afghanistan. Three successive presi­dents have wanted to retreat there, too. Our exit, badly conceived and atrociously executed, puts Afghanistan back where it was on 9/10.

We are not where we were on 9/10. We now know, every time we go through an airport check-in or whenever early September comes around, that terrorists out of the Dark Ages have us in their sights. We started fighting back on 9/11, when the passengers of Flight 93, realizing what was going on, battled their captors to the death. We must battle on, violently when necessary, patiently always.

PHOTO GALLERY: 9/11 Attacks

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