Nine years later …

Every year on the anniversary of 9/11, I try to write some sort of retrospective on what has been the defining event for Americans of this generation, and for the nation in the 21st century. After nine years of commemorations, though, today I’d prefer to look forward rather than back. That was my first impulse in the moments after we realized that terrorists had attacked and destroyed the World Trade Center, disfigured the Pentagon, and murdered almost 3,000 people in their lunatic zeal for a pan-Islamist world.

In the days that followed, I asked myself how I personally should respond.  How does a middle-aged man with a family come to the defense of his country from an asymmetrical threat?  My father noted with some disdain that after Pearl Harbor, lines formed around military recruitment centers, but after this generation’s Pearl Harbor, those recruitment centers seemed almost forgotten.  But this was the wake-up call in a war that didn’t involve empires and massive military machines; rather it was a war that involved a relatively small number of lunatics with a lot of cash and a willingness to die just to kill others, not for land or resources but just for the sake of death itself.  We didn’t need a larger military as much as we needed a larger mindset.

It took me a while to absorb this, and to find a channel for my need to do something in the wake of 9/11.  That impulse led me to blogging, and to focus on war and foreign policy as much as I do national politics and domestic policy.  Others did join the military, or began doing both as milbloggers; still more became political activists across a wide spectrum of thought and philosophy.  All of these and more are the expressions of a free people, a way of reaffirming our American heritage and the principles that make us a nation — as well as a rebuke to those who think they can terrorize us into submission.  Our colors do not run, and whether we are conservatives or liberals, Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans first and foremost.

It’s been nine years now, and perhaps it has slowly sunk into the national consciousness that this is the new normal.  Barack Obama got it mostly right yesterday in this quote from his press conference:

I think that in this day and age, there are going to be — there is always going to be the potential for an individual or a small group of individuals, if they are willing to die, to kill other people.  Some of them are going to be very well organized and some of them are going to be random.  That threat is there.  And it’s important, I think, for the American people to understand that, and not to live in fear.  It’s just a reality of today’s world that there are going to be threats out there.

We have, I think, greatly improved our homeland security since 9/11 occurred.  I am constantly impressed with the dedication that our teams apply to this problem.  They are chasing down every thread not just from al Qaeda but any other actor out there that might be engaging in terrorism.  They are making sure that even a — what might appear to be a lone individual who has very little organizational capacity — if they make a threat, they follow up.

But one of the things that I want to make sure we do as long as I’m President, and beyond my presidency, is to understand America’s strength in part comes from its resilience, and that we don’t start losing who we are or overreacting if, in fact, there is the threat of terrorism out there.

We go about our business.  We are tougher than them.  Our families and our businesses and our churches and mosques and synagogues and our Constitution, our values, that’s what gives us strength.  And we are going to have this problem out there for a long time to come.  But it doesn’t have to completely distort us. And it doesn’t have to dominate our foreign policy.  What we can do is to constantly fight against it.  And I think ultimately, we are going to be able to stamp it out.  But it’s going to take some time.

The truth is that the threat existed for years before 9/11, and not just from al-Qaeda.  We saw an increasing number of attacks between the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and 9/11, mainly abroad, that we just chose not to consider seriously as a rising threat.  People may want to blame Bill Clinton for that, but before 9/11, there would have been little support from anyone for a military expedition to Afghanistan or Sudan or Somalia to wipe out Osama bin Laden, and honest people will acknowledge that.  As a nation, we simply didn’t think it would amount to a serious threat, and 9/11 changed that forever.

So what do we do now?  What do the next nine years look like from this vantage point?  Terrorism has ceased being the top priority of Americans, who are more worried now about the economy and jobs — as it should be.  We should go about our business, but with the clarity that while we don’t want to arrange our public lives around terrorism forever, we need to keep the danger in mind as we conduct that business.  Recent attack attempts remind us of the potential cost of complacency, but we no longer have the luxury of indulging in sheer ignorance as we did through September 10th, 2001.

We may never “stamp it out,” because this kind of lunacy doesn’t take too many people to become a danger to the US and the rest of the free world.  We can stamp out the terrorists where we find them, and we can cut off their funding and resources.  That will be the new normal, and it will last a long time, and we finally appear to have realized it.

Update: Here are some of our previous remembrances:

Update II: The comments are predictably filling up with rebukes over my supposed failure to blame all of Islam for the 9/11 attacks, even though I mention the fact that radical Islamism was the motive in the very first paragraph.  Well, if that’s true, then I presume the same commenters will be demanding our immediate withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, since in both cases we are trying to create self-government for followers of Islam rather than attempting to wipe them out.  George W. Bush, whatever his other shortcomings on domestic policy, fought this war tenaciously and superbly, and knew that we have as many admirers in that part of the world as detractors.  If the entire religion is our enemy, then why bother with Iraq and Afghanistan at all?

There are over a billion Muslims in the world.  Do many of them have sympathy for AQ and radical Islamist theology?  Undoubtedly, but hardly all of them.  But there have always been radical movements violently opposed to freedom and liberty in this world, and we have always known how to take a balanced and effective approach to dealing with it.