September 10, 2003 | National Review Online

9/11 in 20/20 Hindsight

September 11 will be remembered as the worst terrorist attack America ever suffered — if we’re lucky. If not, if we’re not extraordinarily successful in waging the war on terrorism, there remains this possibility: That years from now, Osama bin Laden and 9/11 will be to terrorism what the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk were to aviation — just a modest beginning.

Too many leading political figures and pundits either don’t understand this or refuse to accept it. They view what’s taking place today in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, India, the Philippines, and other places as separate skirmishes engendered by a variety of grievances. They don’t grasp that a collection of extremist ideologies — all pathologically anti-democratic, anti-Western, and anti-modern — are utilizing terrorism as an arrow aimed at the Free World’s vulnerable heel.

Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat running for president, has said that 9/11 is our generation’s Pearl Harbor. But like so many others, Kerry hesitates to acknowledge what follows from that proposition. In the months and years following Dec. 7, 1941, America embarked on a great and terrible war, not just in the Pacific, but also in North Africa and Europe; not just against the Japanese militarists who bombed our ships at anchor, but also against German Nazis and Italian Fascists.

Had anyone asked President Roosevelt how much the war would cost, he would probably have answered: “However much it takes.” Had anyone asked how long we’d be at war, he probably would have answered: “For the duration.” But it’s difficult to imagine anyone having the nerve to ask FDR such questions; difficult to imagine a 1940s version of Ted Kennedy or Pat Buchanan demanding an “exit strategy.”

The hard truth is that we don’t know when we’ll win the war on terrorism. The harder truth is that we don’t know if we’ll win. We should at least acknowledge that this war is more perilous than any conflict America has ever fought. That’s because terrorists, by definition, are people who abide by no rules and who count life as cheap — their own lives included. It’s conceivable that before too long terrorists may obtain weapons of mass destruction that were unimaginable to terrorists of the past. That would allow them to kill not just thousands but hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. This fact has not yet sunk in.

September 11 was not the day this conflict began. Rather, 9/11/01 was the day when Americans first began to seriously fight back. The order to do that was not given by any government official or military officer. It was a decision made by ordinary citizens, passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 as it flew over Shanksville, Pennsylvania. They grasped the reality of their situation and they determined to die free and fighting rather than allow themselves to be led meekly to slaughter.

Prior to that moment, most Americans had deluded themselves into believing that terrorism was merely a nuisance. Ignore it — it will go away. Washington’s policy was inaction — and appeasement.

This war actually began more than 20 years ago. I was a reporter in Iran in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned and took power. For the most part, my fellow journalists were sympathetic toward him and his mission. Publications of the Left, such as The Nation, put the most-flattering possible face on the mullahs. But so, too, did publications of the center such as The New Yorker.

Later that year, our diplomats were taken hostage in our own embassy. Americans tied yellow ribbons around trees, and President Carter launched “Desert One,” a helicopter rescue attempt that turned into a disaster, and which spread the perception that the use of military force was not a serious option for the United States of America. That notion was reinforced when, in 1980, President Carter sent former attorney general Ramsey Clark to Iran — essentially to apologize to the mullahs.

In 1983, Hezbollah, a terrorist organization backed by Iran and Syria, attacked the U.S. embassy and the Marine barracks in Lebanon, slaughtering 241 Marines. In response: President Reagan ordered American officials in Beirut to pack up and leave.

Terrorists next murdered CIA Beirut station chief, William Buckley. Again, we did nothing and, as a result, Hezbollah and Iran were emboldened to take — and kill — additional American hostages.

In 1986, President Reagan did order a strike against Tripoli in reprisal for the bombing of a Berlin disco frequented by American military personnel. You’ll recall that the French refused to let our military aircraft fly through their air space for that purpose. (Le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose.)

But two years later, Pan Am 103 was blown up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people. Our response was a prolonged investigation that resulted in the conviction of one low-level Libyan operative.

No group, no nation, no dictator, no terror master was ever held accountable for any of these acts of mass murder. We were dealing, as former Pentagon official Richard Perle has said “with people who understand strength and have only contempt for weakness.” And we were pursing a policy of weakness. We were inviting contempt.

The 1990s was the decade when terrorism truly began to metastasize. In 1993 alone there was the first attack on the World Trade towers, the bloody battle involving bin Laden-trained Somali guerillas and U.S. forces in Mogadishu, and the attempt by Saddam Hussein to assassinate former President Bush in Kuwait. In 1996, our troops in the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia were bombed. Two years later came the bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Two years after that came the attack on the USS Cole.

During all this time, tens of thousands of terrorists were training in Afghanistan, in the Bekaa Valley of Syrian-occupied Lebanon, at Salman Pak south of Baghdad, and in other locations. Astonishingly, we made no attempt to shut down these camps. We didn’t seriously try to penetrate the groups running them or to punish the regimes hosting them. Perhaps we thought these terrorists would only be dispatched to Chechnya, Bosnia, and Israel. Perhaps we thought all this need not concern us.

Whatever the rationale for our failure to act, Sept. 11 is the price we paid.

Most Americans today — though not the Left and the isolationist Right — understand that we must wage a war on terrorism. But they may not understand that this war isn’t only against terrorism. As scholar Daniel Pipes points out, terrorism is a weapon, akin to poison gas. The question is: Who is deploying this weapon? The answer is: The followers of several closely related ideologies identified by such names as Jihadism, Islamism, Militant Islam, Muslim Totalitarianism, Islamo-fascism, Baathism, Wahhabism, and bin Ladenism.

These are all poisonous stews mixing Islamic flavors with ingredients from Nazism, Fascism, and Communism. They all believe in Arab and/or Islamic supremacism. They all intend to unite the Arab and/or Islamic words against America, the Great Satan, and Israel, the Little Satan. They all want to prevent the liberalization of the Arab and Islamic worlds. They all seek to resurrect the Arab/Muslim empire. They all call for a jihad, a holy war, against the infidels — by which they mean Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and moderate Muslims. They all want to humiliate and defeat America. They all despise those who believe in tolerance, democratic capitalism, and modernism. It was, after all, the World Trade Center they attacked — people from more than 80 nations and of all the great religions were in those two buildings and, yes, they were doing business.

While the terrorists would be pleased to accept concessions from us, surely we should be able to recognize that diplomacy and appeasement will not satisfy them. Withdraw our troops from Iraq, force India to give up Kashmir, break off an Islamic state from the Philippines, arm-twist Israel to make unilateral concessions — it won’t matter.

In their view, it’s them or us — there can be no peaceful coexistence. Their vision of what Islam once was and must be again are threatened by the very existence of a powerful and successful Free World, threatened by the seductiveness of the lifestyles of the rich and blasphemous.

As Americans began to grasp two years ago today, this is a fight we now have to fight, and one we must expect to continue fighting for many years to come. The alternative is to be led meekly to slaughter.

— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute created after 9/11 and focusing on terrorism.



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