Reflections — 12 September 2011

To this day, I cannot witness a sunny, blue-sky September day, bright and clear as crystal, without a twinge of sadness, laced with a whiff a dread.  That is one of my lingering impressions of 9-11.   That such remorseless, wanton evil could descend out of a cloudless sky like it did that day will forever mar, for me, the beauty of one of God’s matchless everyday achievements.

And the jumpers.  That’s another impression I can’t shake.  Thank heaven I didn’t have to see them – the imagination is potent enough.   Often when I find myself on a high floor in a skyscraper, I look out and down and wonder if I would find the courage to step into the void like they did.  I suppose when the alternative is roasting in a hellfire of burning jet fuel, one can do it.  But the thought of it still gives me the shakes.  Ordinary people sometimes do extraordinary things.  Some of them even held hands as they leapt to their deaths.

And then there were the heroes.  Most of us who live comfortable lives can’t fathom the selflessness of those who walk into the fires that everyone else is escaping.  But there is a nobility in it that surpasses all the shallow material things that we normally use to keep score and affirm our worth.  They deserve all the honor they are accorded on a day like this.

Again, ordinary people doing extraordinary things – the passengers on United 93 probably saved the White House or the Congress from destruction.  Even when you know your situation is hopeless, it takes tremendous courage to try to retake your plane from murderous hijackers.

Another recollection – the streets lined with Old Glory.  Briefly, we were together as a people, all our quarreling and politics laid aside while we raged, wept, comforted, and grieved over this one unifying event.  It was enough to persuade the Senate to pass the Patriot Act 98-1, or to authorize the use of force in Iraq 77-23 a year later.

And then we were at war.  I think it was unfortunate that the Bush Administration felt it necessary to use indirect language to describe the enemy – the War on Terror.  Terror is a tactic, used by such disparate groups as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Shining Path guerrillas of Peru, and the Unabomber.  The 9-11 enemy commit their horrors in the name of their god, and do so in pursuit of a fantasy revival of a medieval caliphate.

Extremist, fanatical Islamists.  That’s who this war is against.

I said to a friend at the time that Bush was making a big gamble in engaging with a stateless, ephemeral enemy like al Qaeda.  The American people are known to be impatient, to lack the long-range discipline for a prolonged, frustrating, twilight battle.  Sure enough, it was not long before the chorus began to withdraw from this fight.  To their everlasting discredit, many Democratic Senators and Congressmen disavowed their earlier support and swung into opposition when the public’s enthusiasm turned against the war in its various guises.

And yet, the essential rightness of the edifice that Bush put together to prosecute the War on Terror – the wiretaps, the renditions, the detentions at Guantanamo, the overseas prisons – has been proven by the fact that President Obama, despite campaigning vigorously against virtually every aspect of it, has kept it largely intact.

Our nation is lucky, indeed, that Bush won re-election in 2004.  Because a President Kerry may very well have withdrawn before the fight had been won.  And because the war in Iraq, however badly managed in so many aspects, has been essential in our success in the War on Terror, to the point where al Qaeda has suffered a strategic defeat.

Al Qaeda placed their biggest bet on Anbar Province.  They hoped that by driving the Americans out of Iraq they could build their Islamic wonderland in the wreckage.  But between our military and the local sheiks of Anbar, their ambitions were thwarted.  While there is still plenty of unrest in Iraq, and the occasional bombing outrage, al Qaeda as a major force there has been comprehensively defeated.  This, in turn, undermines their claim throughout the region of being the “strong horse” that Osama bin Laden liked to invoke.

The real mortal blow to al Qaeda, however, has been the Arab Spring.  Mass demonstrations, organized informally on social networks, ended up bringing down the dictators of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and are threatening Syria, Yemen, and others.  Overthrow of these repressive governments was more a goal of al Qaeda than attacking the United States.  And these revolutions took place without them.  They were completely irrelevant to the process, which makes them increasingly irrelevant to the future development of the Middle East.

This is not to say that what will emerge from the Arab Spring will invariably be Western-oriented, enlightened democracies.  Indeed, there is a disturbing trend in Egypt that suggests the Islamists may yet emerge ascendant.  Regardless, the al Qaeda model of violent jihad against apostate Muslim regimes and their Western sponsors has not been the critical factor in the most wide-ranging convulsions in the region’s recent history.

So we are on the verge of a major turning in the War on Terror.  We are still at risk, and the shivers that went through New York yesterday after credible hints of an anniversary attack were justified.  A wounded animal is often the most dangerous kind.  And it only takes a handful of determined people to pull off a spectacular, as we saw ten years ago.

But through diligent work, multi-level cooperation and communication among security and intelligence forces, and some luck, we have gone ten years without a repeat.  Credit for that goes to Bush, and to Obama for continuing what Bush started.  And even though there will never be a surrender document signed on the deck of the USS Missouri, we are prevailing in this war, and – as Bush predicted – al Qaeda is on its way to the dust bin of history.

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