Thoughts on 9/11, anti-Americanism, the sources of national security

Seven years is a long time. In the seven years between 1994 and 2001, U.S. interests were the target of numerous Islamic terrorist attacks culminating in the near destruction of the USS Cole in 2000. Seventeen US sailors died in that attack.


Since September 11, 2001, there have been no successful Islamic terrorists attacks against U.S. interests–unless, as is not unreasonable, you count the manner in which every airline passenger is in effect held hostage by security precautions as a species of time-released attack.

This summer, The Economist‘s “Bagehot” rightly warned Britons against complacency: There are at least 2000 committed jihadists in 200 separate cells in Britain, he noted. “Al-Qaeda proper is patient as well as urgently apocalyptic: it habitually waits years between big operations. There is no reason to think it has forgotten Britain.”

We can be confident they haven’t forgotten the United States, either. The first World Trade Center Bombing took place in February 1993. (See Andy McCarthy’s great book, Willful Blindness, on the bombing and its aftermath; UPDATE: and see also Andy’s commemorative essay posted today here.). The carnage, measured against the expectations of the terrorists, was disappointing: it killed “only” six people and injured more than 1000. But the towers stood. Quoth one of the bombers: “Next time, we’ll do it right.”

And so they did, seven and a half years later. The lesson? That “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”? In part. Today, I believe, there is a widely shared understanding that our culture–not just the political system of democracy but our entire western way of life–is at a crossroads. That perception is not always on the surface. Absent the unignorable importunity of attack, absorption in the tasks of everyday life tends to blunt the perception of the threats facing us. But we all know that the future of the West, seemingly so assured even a decade ago, is suddenly negotiable in the most fundamental way.


In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, we saw plenty of deplorable outbursts of anti-Americanism: the dancing “Death to America” multitudes in the Middle East as well as the predictable responses of the Chomsky-Sontag-Pinter brigade. But we also witnessed a vast outpouring of sympathy. Some of the sympathy no doubt was genuine; much of it was oleaginous and depended on the novel spectacle of America appearing as a victim. The trouble was that America was not content to remain a victim. And when a victim fights back, he may earn respect but he forfeits sympathy and kindred sentimentalizing emotions.

When Susan Sontag said that the terrorist assaults on the United States were “undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions,” she offered that observation as a partial justification or extenuation of the attacks, which it most certainly was not. But there is, I believe, another sense in which growing anti-Americanism, together with a growing climate of terrorism, can be seen as a predictable result of American actions or, more to the point, of American inaction.

I am not offering a candidate for the “cause”–much less the “root cause”–of terrorism. Determining the cause of terrorism is not a difficult hermeneutical problem. Jonathan Rauch had it essentially right when he argued that the cause of terrorism is terrorists. Nevertheless, when we ask what nurtures terrorists, what may be counted on to allow them to flourish and multiply, one important answer concerns the failure of authority, which is the failure to live up to the responsibilities of power.


In the course of a 1975 essay on anti-Americanism, Henry Fairlie observed that “Anti-Americanism abroad tends to be strongest when America itself seems to have lost confidence in its own idea.” Some such loss of confidence has repeatedly afflicted the American spirit at least since the end of the Vietnam conflict. It is by now a familiar litany, but is nonetheless worth reviewing. From the mid-1970s, the United States has vacillated in discharging its responsibilities to power. Whatever the wisdom of our involvement in Vietnam, our way of extricating ourselves was ignominious and an incitement to further violence. The image of that U.S. helicopter evacuating people from our embassy in Saigon is a badge of failure, not so much of military strategy as of nerve.

Even worse was our response to the hostage crisis in Iran in 1979 and 1980. Our hesitation to act decisively was duly noted and found contemptible by our enemies. And the fiasco of President Carter’s botched rescue attempt, when a transport vehicle and one of our helicopters collided on the sands of the Iranian desert, was a national humiliation. President Reagan did effectively face down the Soviet Union, but his halfhearted response to the terrorist bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 contributed to the tattered reputation of America as (in Mao’s phrase) “a paper tiger.”

The Clinton administration sharply exacerbated the problem. From 1993 through 2000, the United States again and again demonstrated its lack of resolve even as it let its military infrastructure decay. In Somalia at the end of 1992, two U.S. helicopters were shot down, several Americans were killed, the body of one was dragged naked through the streets of Mogadishu. We did nothing–an action, or lack of action, that prompted Osama bin Laden way back then to reflect that his followers were “surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat.”


It was the same in 1993, when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center. It was the same in June 1996, when a truck bomb exploded outside a U.S. military barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen Americans. There were some anguished words but we did–nothing. It was the same in 1998 when our embassies were bombed in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds. The response was to rearrange some rocks in the Afghan desert with a few cruise missiles.

It was the same in October 2000, when suicide terrorists blew a gigantic hole in USS Cole, almost sinking one of the U.S. Navy’s most advanced ships. Like Hamlet, we responded with “words, words, words,” and only token military gestures. The harvest was an increase in contempt and a corresponding increase in terrorist outrage, culminating–that time around–in the terrible events of September 11, 2001.

The observation that the triumph of evil requires only that good men stand by and do nothing has special relevance at a time, like now, that is inflected by terrorism. I have several friends-thoughtful, well-intentioned people-who believe the United States should never have intervened in Afghanistan, who believe even more staunchly that the United States should never have intervened in Iraq, and, moreover, that we should get out forthwith, Surge or no Surge. “We should,” they believe, “keep to ourselves. We have no business meddling with the rest of the world. We cannot be the world’s constabulary, nor should we aspire to be. It is not in our interest–for it breeds resentment–and it is not in the interest of those we profess to help, since they should be allowed to govern themselves–or not, as the case may be.”


Whatever the wisdom of the position in the abstract, the resurgence of international terrorism, fueled by hate and devoted to death, renders it otiose. The bombings in London a few summers ago were, as these things go, relatively low in casualties. But they were high in indiscriminateness. The people on those buses and subway cars were as innocent as innocent can be: just folks, moms and dads and children on their way to work or school or play, as uninterested, most of them, in politics or Islam as it is possible to be. And yet those home-grown Islamicists were happy to blow them to bits.

Here is the novelty: Our new enemies are not political enemies in any traditional sense, belligerent in the service of certain interests of their own. Their belligerence is focused rather on the very existence of an alternative to their vision of beatitude, namely on Western democracy and its commitment to individual freedom and economic prosperity. I return to Hussein Massawi: “We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.”

In fact, the situation is even grimmer than Mr. Massawi suggests. For our new enemies are not simply bent on our destruction: they are pleased to compass their own destruction as a collateral benefit. This is one of those things that makes Islamofascism a particularly toxic form of totalitarianism. At least most Communists had some rudimentary attachment to the principle of self-preservation. In the face of such death-embracing fanaticism our only option is unremitting combat.


The late, great James Burnham made a similar point about facing down the juggernaut of Communism: “just possibly,” he wrote during the Cold War, ” we shall not have to die in large numbers to stop them: but we shall certainly have to be willing to die.” The issue, Burnham saw, is that modern liberalism has equipped us with an ethic too abstract and empty to inspire real commitment. Modern liberalism, he wrote,

does not offer ordinary men compelling motives for personal suffering, sacrifice, and death. There is no tragic dimension in its picture of the good life. Men become willing to endure, sacrifice, and die for God, for family, king, honor, country, from a sense of absolute duty or an exalted vision of the meaning of history. . . . And it is precisely these ideas and institutions that liberalism has criticized, attacked, and in part overthrown as superstitious, archaic, reactionary, and irrational. In their place liberalism proposes a set of pale and bloodless abstractions–pale and bloodless for the very reason that they have no roots in the past, in deep feeling and in suffering. Except for mercenaries, saints, and neurotics, no one is willing to sacrifice and die for progressive education, medicare, humanity in the abstract, the United Nations, and a ten percent rise in Social Security payments.

The Islamofascists have a fanatical belief that theirs is a holy mission, that incinerating infidels is their bounden duty. For them suicide is a gateway to paradise. For us suicide is just that: suicide, but what values, what substantive commitments do we have to pit against their invigorating faith?



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