As the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks descend on us, I thought I would give my take on some lessons that the event presents. Some of these lessons will have been mentioned by commentators, others will not. Some may on the surface seem to have little to do with the event, but all would not have been possible without the attack that changed America on a beautiful late summer morning.
Isolationism is Dead
The biggest lesson 9-11 should have taught the United States and its allies is that it is impossible to raise the drawbridge on a world where people and cargo flow freely between continents and nations. The idea that the Cold War was over and America could return to its default state of isolation evaporated as covert CIA, SOCOM and NSA operations were launched everywhere threats were detected. 9-11 may have launched on American soil, but it was a true global conspiracy, originating from discussions within Afghanistan with operatives from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, financing from the Persian Gulf and Europe, and support cells in Germany. The only way the United States could hope to disrupt future attacks was to spread its resources globally, and pursue and infiltrate terrorist groups whether they were in New Jersey, Frankfurt or the Philippines.
As the memories of 9-11 fade there is pressure from the Left and Right to pull back from this aggressive posture and take a more defensive stance, forgetting that it is much more difficult to kill wasps after they’ve left the nest and begun stinging you. Isolationism has been re-branded and repackaged as non-interventionism, ignoring the fact that it is impossible to conduct international relations without upsetting someone. The mere act of entering the world is viewed as a cause for belligerence because some view international relations as a zero-sum game whereby anyone’s gain is their loss. We will always have enemies, therefore it is to our benefit to have friends. While isolationists have made much about President Washington’s warning about entangling alliances, it isn’t 1796 anymore and besides, Washington would have been hung in the Tower had it not been for the help of America’s first allies the French.
Osama Bin Laden Was Wrong
Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda operation were surprised by the ferocity of the response as well as its global nature. Bin Laden had referred numerous times to the West and the US in particular as being a “weak horse,” a similar term to the “paper tiger” used by the Japanese. It was a logical and rational position to have in the 1990’s. Prior to 9-11 the United States had retreated from Southeast Asia in shame, left Lebanon after the 1983 Barracks bombing, fled Somalia after al-Qaeda sponsored resistance there, done nothing after the first WTC attacks that same year, and lobbed cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan after the 1998 East African Embassy attacks and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Retreat was the common response to terrorist attacks, or cruise missile strikes on desert encampments that relied on old intel thereby making them ineffective. al Qaeda assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, solidifying Taliban control of Afghanistan and insuring its use as a base for al Qaeda operations there.
But like the Japanese had learned 60 years before them, al Qaeda was unprepared for the unprecedented American response. Within days of the 9-11 attacks special forces had been sent to aid the Northern Alliance and help the group return to the offensive. They also prepared the way for the coming American invasion that began less than a month later. By the end of the year al Qaeda and its Taliban supporters had been ousted from Afghanistan and driven into Pakistan. It is unclear to me whether OBL truly regretted 9-11. al Qaeda scored would score numerous propaganda victories against the West and the United States in particular but at the expense of strategic defeat of the organization. While the most religious among them might look forward to martyrdom by US forces, the most intelligent al Qaeda operatives did their best to avoid death by Hellfire missile or a 5.56 NATO round.
Bush and the NeoCons Were Wrong (and so was I)
The vision of a free Iraq and Afghanistan allied with the United States and the West has not come to be. After hundreds of billions of dollars and the deaths of thousands of American soldiers, it is not clear that either Iraq or Afghanistan will remain in America’s orbit or whether they will slip into becoming a satellite states of Iran and Pakistan. The NeoCons believed that at heart the Iraqis and other Islamic peoples were “like us” and that once they saw we would sacrifice ourselves for their future, they would become our allies just as the Germans, Italians and Japanese did after World War 2. Unfortunately they failed to understand or accept the nature of Islam or Arab culture which made such alliances unlikely. At best we can hope for independent states that do not harbor terrorists or attack their neighbors, but this is not the outcome supporters of the Iraq war such as myself wanted.
In retrospect I do not believe the war in Iraq was a mistake, nor the sacrifice of American blood and treasure a wasted one. For one thing the Iraq we are going to get is better than the one we had under Saddam. The likelihood of Iraq becoming like Syria is considerable enough to be a concern but remains small. The majority of Iraqis may be Shi’a, but they are not Persians and are culturally distinct even if they share the same religion. Persians have had a long history of looking down on Arabs and subjugating them, and the Arabs, especially the Iraqis, know this. The Kurds in the north are pro-American and autonomous. They will prevent too much slippage in Baghdad towards Tehran; if not we might end up with a pro-American Kurdish state in the north – not a bad thing in my book especially if Turkey continues its drift towards Islamicism. The American military has proven itself in the eyes of the regimes in the region as well as the Chinese. It has shown itself more than capable of quickly dispatching a large army, and adapted to the realities on the ground. While we may never know the extent to how much this has deterred other powers from attacking the US directly or aiding our enemies, the Chinese have paid very close attention to the quality of our military and its results. The Iraq War will prevent future wars, but to what extent will never be known.
Islam is Problematic And Our Ruling Elite Doesn’t Understand It
9-11 and the events over the past 10 years have taught us that Islam is different from all other world religions. It is not Christianity with different traditions unless the comparison is made to Christianity prior to the Renaissance. Then Christianity was a political and cultural defining force that determined all aspects of life for the lowliest peasant to the greatest emperor. It determined when each arose, what he did prior to work, his job, how he dressed, how he ate, and his relationship to his superiors (in the case of the emperor, to the Pope). There were no concepts of freedom in thought or deed at that time. The identify of “self” as inviolate would not become accepted until the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Tolerance of other cultures, ethnicities and especially religions simply did not exist at all.
Modern Islam is most similar to this pre-Enlightenment Christianity. Separating the political aspects from the religious aspects of Islam is impossible just as it was in Christianity before the Renaissance. The two are intertwined in ways that has taken centuries after the Enlightenment to disentangle, something that we in the US continue to do today with our controversies about crosses on mountains and creches on public property. There are some sects of Islam that separate sacred religion from the profane tasks of politics, and the vast majority of the Muslim umma or faithful may not be politically active, but these facts cannot deny the basis of the religion as dictated by its founder Mohammed. Mohammed was warrior king like Charlemagne as well as a religious prophet – but to forget the former and recall only the latter does a disservice to Jesus Christ and Siddhartha Gautama. Jesus didn’t order villages razed and their inhabitants slaughtered, nor did Buddha order the assassination of poets. Apologists have said that Mohammed was a man of his time, which is true – but only serves to point out the extraordinary lives of Christ and Buddha who also lived in brutal times yet eschewed power and violence to preach peace.
Islam poses unique challenges that the ruling elites simply don’t get. The vast majority of Muslims may not have any difficulty being good citizens of a country while being good Muslims, but there are passages within the Koran that directly challenge this separation. The majority of Muslims may be tolerant of other faiths, but Mohammed’s word and deeds as well as passages within the Koran and the Hadith are intolerant of all other religions. The majority of Muslims may abhor attacks on civilians, but the tenets of Islam say otherwise – including the definition of what constitutes a civilian (non-believers do not qualify). Faithful Muslims have served and died for America – yet faithful Muslims have also beheaded Americans on video.
How do we separate the peaceful believers from an aggressive and intolerant faith? That is the question our leaders should be arguing – not whether Islam is a religion of peace.
The Military Understands Asymmetric Warfare and the Need to Work Closely Together
After facing the insurgencies in Vietnam, Latin America and elsewhere during the Cold War, the American military has finally proven that it can adapt and deploy effective counter-insurgency strategies. Over the past 10 years recruits have been trained on how to recognize and assess threats from guerrillas, training that had previously been limited to special forces or other specialized details within the military. As a consequence tactics have been developed and deployed that limit civilian casualties even when they are used as human shields by the enemy, while at the same time avoiding casualties of their own.
Branches have worked closer together with each other as well as intelligence specialists from the CIA to a degree that would have been unheard of in World War 2 and Vietnam. There has been more sharing of resources and intel and fewer”turf wars” than in previous wars leading to situations where CIA intel leads to a Navy Seal team dispatched to dispatch a high value target while Air Force gunships and Army Rangers provide covering fire. This level of coordination could not have been achieved without leaders within the military and intelligence communities setting aside their differences and working closely together for a greater goal.
The TSA Does Not Make Us Safe
This is one of those lessons that only travelers who watch little old ladies get patted down and the diapers of infants taken off and examined as if they contained enriched uranium understand. Pass through the civil liberty-free zone that pretends to be Security, and take your shoes off, display the your quart sized baggie with your 3oz mouthwash bottle and trial-size toothpaste, then add your belt and anything else metallic, pass through a scanner which the feds state won’t harm you (“Really. Trust us on it.”), then get patted down by someone who either loves his job because he has a fetish for touching annoyed people’s private parts or hates it and ended up doing it because she couldn’t pass a Devry entrance exam. Take a few moments after you’ve pulled on your shoes and collected your belongings and ask yourself if the charade is really effective.
Hassling the mother over her kid’s formula bottle “Was this formula purchased here?” “It’s breast milk. Wanna taste it?” as she struggles to corral her other two kids while her husband gets sent through the metal detector numerous times “I’ve taken everything off that I can.” “Do you have a plate or any medical devices in your body sir?” Does this make us safe? Or how about the old man who shuffles along the metal tables leading to the X-Ray machine, a veteran wearing a cap with a World War 2 naval ship embroidered on it, struggling to keep his balance in his stocking feet as his shoes and his wallet trundle away in front of him. Did he bury his friends at sea for this a half century ago?
Are people in the TSA stupid? Do they think this crap works and keeps the planes arriving at airports instead of plowing into skyscrapers or cornfields? It’s possible although doubtful. We know what works: ask an Israeli. Israel is surrounded by neighbors who want to see it wiped off the face of the Earth and desire nothing to more than to finish what the Third Reich started. It has more enemies than friends in the world – yet it has airports and airliners full of people travel to and from its cities without shoe or underwear bombers. Why?
PC Is Still With Us and Stronger Than Ever
9-11 was a powerful, life changing event for most if not all Americans, but it wasn’t powerful enough to end the muddy-headed thinking of political correctness. PC is stronger than ever. It keeps Homeland Security from deploying behavioral profiling which has a proven track record of keeping safe not only air travelers but shoppers and anyone else who ventures out in public. It clouds the minds of our political leaders who call the Saudis our friends while they export extremism, and the Pakistanis our allies as they shelter Bin Laden and most likely his deputy al Zawahiri and his band of merry goat sodomizers. It causes them to parrot sayings like “Islam is a religion of peace,” at a time when no other religion on the world has a higher body count and inspires more killing of believer and non-believer alike. It turns campuses into zones of hatred of Jews and calls anyone who questions Islam’s terror-fetish “islamophobes.” Islamophobia is an irrational fear of Islam.
Fearing what we witnessed on a brilliant blue day, a day with a color of sky that others have called “9-11 Blue” because its beauty hasn’t been seen since, fearing a religion that teaches hatred of women, non-believers and of gays – that is not irrational. That is sensible. Perhaps that’s not a lesson but one of the many tragedies of 9-11 – we have yet to accept the threat that there are people out there who want to kill us for who we are, not what we have done. They may be fewer, thanks to the lessons learned described above, but they are still out there. Waiting for us to forget and drop our guard, and when we do…