It doesn’t feel like 17 years have passed since that day, does it? It feels like it was just a few years ago.
Those of us who lived through it are going to be dealing with a flood of memories on this date until the day we die. Maybe the date falling on a Tuesday makes the gut punch of dread, sadness, and anger — and our awe of the heroes of that day — and all of the other emotions a little more intense.
The day is bringing its share of grim assessments, such as the Los Angeles Times writing, “Seventeen years after Sept. 11, Al Qaeda may be stronger than ever” and Foreign Policy magazine declaring, “Al Qaeda won.”
On a day-to-day basis, Americans . . . don’t think that much about terrorism anymore. That in and of itself is a remarkable victory. People talk about the fear that day, and then they remember the fears in the days afterwards. Anthrax and the fear of white powder in the mail. Every forgotten backpack being treated as a bomb, sudden evacuations of subway stations and office buildings and malls and airports. I’m struck by the . . . un-empathetic mentality of so many people today, who look back in hindsight and indict the American people for panicking and somehow overreacting.
Americans went from knowing very little about the varieties and methods of terror attacks to learning all about them — biological, chemical, radiological dirty bombs, nuclear. We were still grieving from an unparalleled attack, and the nightly news kept bringing us a catalog of nightmares. Remember the worries about crop-dusters? The hijackers had spent time in California, New Jersey, Florida, Arizona, Virginia, New York, Georgia, Connecticut — and suddenly lots of people were convinced they had seen Mohamed Atta and the others. Some really had, while others merely believed they had after seeing Atta’s ghoulish mugshot with the soulless eyes.
If you had asked Americans whether there would be another 9/11-scale attack, or worse, in the coming 17 years, most would have feared or guessed yes. We thought terror would be a regular presence in our lives in the years to come.
It’s not that terrorism hasn’t touched Americans on our own soil at all since that day — Fort Hood, the Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, Orlando. But terrorists of any stripe haven’t managed anything even remotely on the scale of 9/11. There have been plenty of failed or intercepted attempts — the shoe-bomber on American Airlines flight 63, the Fort Dix Six, the Times Square bombing plot, the underwear bomber on Northwest Airlines flight 253.
But if we’ll never get back to the pre-9/11 sense of normal — was that just another word about our naiveté about our own vulnerability in an open society? — we’ve gotten to a new normal. Yes, the Transportation Security Agency pat-downs at the airport are annoying. Yes, just about every federal building has heavy concrete planters that at least look nice with flowers and that serve the purpose of trying to make a blockade against truck bombs. But on any given day, most Americans are worrying about their job, their kids’ schools, maybe crime, maybe traffic, and maybe what their least favorite politician said or tweeted that day. We’re not afraid to visit landmarks, gather in groups, work in a skyscraper, get on a plane, or open the mail. Yes, terrorists exist, but we are not terrorized.
That Foreign Policy essay declares, “They convinced America that the only way to protect itself from this threat was to suspend civil liberties.” Nonsense. Even Khalid Sheik Mohammad is getting a long legal battle about exactly how and where he’s going to be tried. This may be a long, messy, and complicated legal process, but that’s the whole point — in the American system, even the mastermind of the worst terror attack in American history gets lawyers arguing for his defense, even though he’s probably itching for martyrdom. (Ha-ha-ha, KSM, we’re not going to kill you. We’re going to make you listen to lawyers argue for the rest of your life.)
Oh, some analysts say al-Qaeda won? I notice Osama bin Laden didn’t make it to the victory party. Every once in a while, his former lieutenant and al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issues some new video, but the American people barely hear about it. I don’t think that’s a reflection of bad news judgment on the part of the U.S. media producers. When bin Laden issued videos after 9/11, the whole world stopped and listened in fear. When Zawahiri talks, the world shrugs, or doesn’t notice at all. He’s turned into a remote-Pakistani podcaster.
Al-Qaeda’s not even the top “brand name” in Islamist terrorism anymore. ISIS turned into the big name in the headlines, the preeminent threat, the most feared producers of those nightmare-inducing videos. And the Islamic State has been reduced from a sprawling terror-nation the size of Britain to a bunch of guys making their last stand in Hajin, a town of about 60,000 people. Intelligence analysts say that the group still has as many as 25,000 fighters, but they’re now spread out and in hiding. Yes, ISIS as an ideology and movement will be tougher to defeat than ISIS as an army and a territory. But the Islamic State claimed they were the true new caliphate, capable of conquering and controlling territory. And we, and our coalition allies, and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and the Iraqi army put that aspiring legend to an end.
A lot of foreign-policy and culture writers like to write essays on this day and about how we haven’t lived up to the example set by the heroes of that day (as if that’s an easy thing to do). Yes, more than 400 anti-Muslim hate crimes were reported in 2001, according to the FBI, but that figure was cut roughly in half the following year and stayed at that level until 2016. (Year after year, the group that is most targeted by hate crimes is Jews, and it’s not even close.) In a country of 325 million people, you’re going to get a couple hundred hateful thugs. Our police investigate, prosecute, and incarcerate the perpetrators. We are human and flawed, but we strive to be a safe, just, and fair society.
Amidst all of the other emotions you feel today, leave room for some pride. No, we’re not a perfect country, but no country is. Those of us who have lived abroad know that not every country would respond to an attack like 9/11 the way America did. Had, God forbid, multiple airliners crashed and killed thousands in Moscow, Beijing, Istanbul, or Mecca, the reactions of those governments and peoples would have been quite different, and probably much more violent and indiscriminate.
The Storm Approaches
If you’re living in the Carolinas, be careful. Prepare, and if you’re in an area where they’re urging evacuation, think about visiting that cousin who lives inland.
Hurricane Florence will lash the Carolinas beginning late Thursday as an intense Category 4 hurricane with life-threatening storm surge, destructive winds and massive inland rainfall flooding in one of the strongest strikes on record for this part of the East Coast.
Tuesday morning, a hurricane watch and storm surge watch were issued for the entire coast of North Carolina, including Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, and the South Carolina coast as far south as Edisto Beach. This includes Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Wilmington and the Outer Banks.
The Tough Competition for ‘Kerry’s Worst Decision’
John Kerry’s autobiography, Every Day Is Extra, is hitting bookstore shelves now. I went back to see what he wrote about the 2004 campaign and found he more or less admits he botched one of the biggest and most important decisions of his career:
The political world is rarely kind to the vice-presidential candidate on the losing ticket. Today you rarely hear Democrats asking, “What does Tim Kaine think?” Paul Ryan became speaker of the House and got his tax cuts passed, but he’s ending his career in Congress surprisingly early in his life. Sarah Palin became a superstar pundit but never took another role in government after resigning as governor. Joe Lieberman continued in the Senate, but lost a primary, ended his career as a pariah to his party, and became a McCain-campaign surrogate in 2008. Jack Kemp faded from the scene after 1996, and Dan Quayle never ran for office again.
But Edwards probably stands out as the worst vice-presidential selection in modern history. The lone general-election victory of Edwards’s career came against 70-year-old Lauch Faircloth in a Democratic wave year. His Senate record was unremarkable, and only two of his bills were ever enacted into law; one renamed a post office. His critics had him pegged from the beginning: an empty suit driven by slick speeches and photogenic charisma. His Democratic allies noticed it, too. In his memoirs, longtime Democratic strategist David Axelrod wrote of his former client, “His one-on-one interactions with people were plastic, and out of the public eye, his interest in the substance of issues was thin. He wanted only as much information as he needed to glide by — and he was bright and glib enough to glide a long way.”
Edwards was shameless enough to pitch himself to both the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns as a potential running mate while hiding his child with Hunter. Once the façade crumbled, there was nothing left; he will be remembered as a catastrophe dodged by the Democratic party. After the revelation that he cheated on his wife while she was fighting cancer, a Democratic polling firm revealed that Edwards was “the most unpopular person it had ever polled.”
ADDENDUM: And how did you enjoy Monday Night Football last night?