Ten years ago today, our country and my family received a terrible blow. We were attacked. Our countrymen were murdered. We were shaken. 9/11 is an important historical event that has defined much of the last ten years, but it was also a family tragedy for me, as my Uncle Donnie Regan gave his life that day in the line of duty with the New York City Fire Department.
I distinctly remember the day, as I’m sure most Americans my age do. I was living in Texas at the time–taking time off and about to start my first law firm job in a few weeks–and received a call from a close friend. They were evacuating the Dallas Federal Building. I turned on the TV. The first tower was already down. I was stunned. The second tower came down soon thereafter. My alarm at this took a little time; at first, I thought this was a replay of the first tower falling. Then I realized that this situation was even worse than I thought. Rumors of the “mall in DC” being on fire were on the news. No one knew the extent of it. I spoke briefly to my parents, when I heard that Donnie–my uncle and the father of my cousins to whom I am closest–may have been at the towers.
My older brother was in the Marines and had deployed to Yemen after the Cole attacks. I figured he’d be off to war soon, along with my cousin Peter, Donnie’s son. Some friends and I spent a stressed out day together. We watched TV and talked about what it all meant. We all had no clear idea what the hell was happening. The skies became silent. But the mood was mostly one of shock and of anger. I distinctly remember driving behind a blue collar young man with some thrown-together markings on his truck, which merely said ” It’s Time for the U.S. to Get Some!”
It was pretty obvious to me and my friends that this was Islamic terrorists. America faced no other threats of note at the time, and the Cole attack happened just a few months earlier. A few years before that, there were the embassy bombings in Africa. And America was not exactly on “lock down.” We were letting–and would continue to let–any Third Worlder with a pulse into this country with no regard to their beliefs, associations, religion, or other aspects of their background. That’s how the 9/11 attackers got in; most were legal visitors here on the still-too-easy-to-get student visas.
It took a few weeks to confirm Donnie’s death. As I recall, they only found his mask.
The attacks spawned three major policy responses, but certain basic measures were considered “off the table” and never undertaken. Bush appeared strong and resolute, but we can see now how much was left undone.
First, American created the Department of Homeland Security and significantly increased the apparatus of surveillance and intelligence sharing, as well as the securing of domestic buildings, airplane flights, infrastructure, and much else. We became used to metal detectors, concrete barriers, long lines, and giving up more and more personal information to the government. By itself, this should have been expected. We were complacent and faced a new threat. But there was an elephant in the room: the millions of hostile Arab and Muslim citizens and noncitizens with whom we continued to live. We gave up our historical freedoms to protect the false freedom of open borders. God forbid we spare grandma the full pat down to give Mohammad and friends extra attention. That would be wrong, but only under the logic of liberalism. These homeland security measures were mostly sensible by themselves, but they were rendered ineffective and comic by the continued mass immigration from hostile lands and the refusal to practice and defend profiling of Middle Easterners.
Second, America attacked al Qaeda in Afghanistan. This was a welcome, necessary, and swift measure. About a month after the attacks, Americans attacked Afghanistan big with a paradrop of Army Rangers on the outskirts of Kandahar. Elements of the US Marines soon arrived to secure the base and run patrols. Special Forces, meanwhile, had stunning results with their Afghan proxies. The Taliban mostly ran away. Unfortunately, Al Qaeda found a safe haven in Pakistan, which, being both a nominal ally and a nuclear-armed country, made it difficult for us to exploit our initial successe. Since that time, we’ve been fighting elements of the Taliban and also engaging in a counterinsurgency. Bush soon embraced a grand strategic effort to democratize the Muslim World, making this his “big idea” in prosecuting the war. We finally got bin Laden in Pakistan, but the anti-terrorist piece of the war became secondary. Like the increase in domestic security, the entire Afghanistan Campaign revealed the false “unity” of 9/11. Michael Moore and others warned of the evils of retaliation in the months after 9/11. We heard defeatist tales of the Afghan winter. Even so, the mood, at least at first, favored resolute action.
Finally, there is Iraq. America lost all tolerance for risk after 9/11, was fearful of WMDs, and believed that Iraq had attempted somehow to help al Qaeda, and thus we attacked Iraq in 2003. Here too a swift conventional war was followed by a less successful nation-building campaign plagued by a domestic and international jihadist insurgency. Instead of a swift punitive raid, we got a ten year war with indeterminate results. One of the major justifications–WMDs–turned out not to be present. This war would be the more controversial of the two. The Democrats that worried just a few years earlier about Ramadan bombing and the Afghan Winter now claimed that Afghanistan was the “right war” and unleashed the full fury of their post-Woodstock pacifism against the Iraq Campaign. President Obama won the presidency, in part, on his pledge to withdraw our troops from this war. Even instinctually pro-military Americans like me became concerned about the direction of the war and Iraqi hostility to our forces. We have since learned, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that nation building is probably not our strong suit, nor does it have much to do with the retaliatory and anti-terrorist aspects of the war.
Liberalism Weakens Our Response
We could have known in advance that wars of nation building are almost impossible. Bush once knew this; he campaigned in 2000 on the undesirability of nation building. But all his advisors were of the neocon persuasion. He has an admirable American trait of wanting to root out the cause of our problems, which he diagnosed as the tyranny and hopelessness of the Arab and Islamic world. And he has the liberal disease too, and that is why he is so in love with open borders and democracy and constantly says Islam is a religion of peace. Finally, real conservatives hoped or believed that these justifications were window dressing for what would in reality be a war of retaliation. It turned out Bush and his military advisors were fairly sincere.
It is a just and good thing to retaliate against those that attack us. Bush knew this much. And that retaliatory dimension was certainly present, especially in both wars’ early stages. But we do not need to give hostile nations democracy; indeed, it is not so clear we can and, even where we can, it seems that this expands the power of the Islamists. Mesmerized by the success of our postwar reconstruction of Japan and Germany, Bush and the neocons forgot that war is not a favor we do for people. Furthermore, Iraq and Afghanistan are not Germany and Japan. We must accept that we are dealing with a long-simmering, hostile, and completely alien civilization that views itself as our civilizational rival. It cannot easily (or justly) be eliminated, so we should minimize contact with it, but for the occasional punitive raid and certain necessary commercial contacts.
Minimizing our foreign policy friction is only part of the puzzle. There is a domestic agenda that goes beyond better airline security and hardening sensitive public places. We need to shut the front door. This is al Qaeda and Islam’s tool of power projection. We need to stop these hostile and alien people from entering our country. We need to be unashamed about profiling and monitoring those that are already here. We need not bow down to their imperious demands to put Mosques in the shadow of Ground Zero and the loudspeakers of the Muezzin on our streets. We need not pretend that this religion is an historical part of America, coequal with our Christian heritage, or that it is anything other than the hostile force it has shown itself to be. The refusal to see this reality and speak plainly about it has been a huge failure of both political parties in this country.
These two seemingly different mistakes in strategy–one of action (democracy building) and one of omission (our flawed immigration and security policies)–have unity in this sense: they are both expressions of the liberal nondiscrimination principle, which says that distinctions of nation from nation, Muslim from Christian, European from Middle Easterner, and friend from enemy are unfair, unchosen, illegitimate, retrograde, mean, racist, evil, irrational, and “the opposite of everything we stand for.”
Bush, in spite of his reputation as a hardcore conservative, was actually just a self-confident liberal. His Iraq War was akin to Obama’s Libyan War: wars as favors to the oppressed, who in turn would become oppressors because of Islam. Bush believed in America, but he believed that America was liberalism personified. Thus he didn’t merely want to “kill the evildoers” –which to his credit he did and so has Obama to some extent–but he also wanted to do so in “keeping with our values.” So he tried to democratize these people, while refusing to say we could do well with a few less of them at home. Bush believed in America, but he also believed in a utopian story that everyone is, at heart, an American who wants the American way of life. Obama has an instinctual aversion to this kind of nation building, because, being a more consistent liberal, considers this all mildly imperialist. Thus, Obama takes his liberalism full circle and wants to defang its greatest worldwide promoter, America. Bush and Obama both, however, deny the moral right of Americans to secure their borders on the traditional grounds that discrimination in our immigration policies is sensible, our fundamental right, and completely warranted under the circumstances.
The Public Memory of 9/11
Liberalism does not know what to do with the impulse to revenge that is associated with a coherent community. This is a primititve and nonpolitical impulse. It involves a kind of discrimination . . . that between friend and enemy. It’s as old as the first human family. So the liberal opinion makers and politicians cannot fully understand this very real feeling from that time, or they suppress it or redefine it as primitive racism, when it was no such thing.
The suicidal liberalism that confused our policy response finds its expression today in the memorials to the victims of 9/11. They become mere victims of a tragedy, as if 9/11 were an earthquake or a mere engineering failure. A day when we were all super pissed off and angry and scared becomes sentimentally transformed into a “day we all came together.”
Whatever unity we felt on 9/11, was an from a happy thing to be celebrated. It was really an expression of collective shock. And, worse yet, that unity wasn’t worth much. It just meant the dominant liberal voices in the academy and the media faced a situation that did not compute. The minute that unity was translated into action, we saw massive disunity. For the last ten years, we heard about the evils of bombing on Ramadan or keeping terorrists detained at GITMO. Even before we were given a chance to act, we were cajoled that we need not overreact to our Muslim newcomers. The propaganda has been in full swing ever since. We spend more time castigating Americans for the phantom pogroms against Muslims than we do focusing on the disloyalty, hostility, and illiberalism of these supposed victims.
Perhaps my least favorite phenomenon: 9/11 has more recently become a “day for volunteering.” And that volunteering need not attend to the victims or the military or anything remotely related to the attacks. Volunteering, like brushing your teeth, is a good thing to do. But it has nothing to with what happened that day.
And what was that?
A mass murder of my countrymen. A mass murder which functioned as a deadly act of war. Stewardesses throats were cut. People sitting at their desks were incinerated. People jumped to their deaths under the irresistible impact of smoke and heat and fire. On 9/11, something specific and meaningful happened: we faced an attack by the militant wing of an ancient, hostile political unit, the Ummah, in the name of that act, Jihad, mandated by the alleged Religion of Peace, Islam.
Mass murder means something very specific but hard to fully fathom. It is the infinite harm of an ordinary murder, that pain felt every day by friends and sons and daughters and brothers and wives of the dead, multiplied by each and every victim.
What is infinity times 2,977?
It means several tens of thousands of children grow up without fathers. It means that mothers and brothers and husbands and wives spend years quite differently from how they expected. It means some get lost in a bottle. Others must cope with nightmares. They “move on,” but never without the looming memory of their loved ones. Most just wish they could pick up the phone and tell a story or hear a joke or ask for advice.
John Lukacs describes history as the “remembered past.” How we remember 9/11 is important. Many of those who died in the NYPD and the FDNY and in small anonymous acts of heroism among coworkers saved friends and strangers at the cost of their own lives. I honor Donnie for living his life as he did. He saved many lives that day, and he lived a life that always had meaning and purpose, both in his work and in how he treated his family. But 9/11 is not simply a story of his and other first responders’ heroism. Firemen and cops and soldiers are heroic every day.
Their good was occasioned by great evil. 9/11 was an attack. It had a purpose and a goal and a set of perpetrators. It is, as the old Catholic Catechism said, “an act that cries to heaven for vengeance!” This group still means us harm. In our recognition of what happened, we need not make this day a day of bloodlust. But that is no real threat. The American way has never been like our enemies’ with their undignified screaming in the streets at the slightest provocation. The maudlin sentimentality that ignores the centrality of jihad in those attacks is the greater threat. We should not allow our dignity and self-containment to devolve into indifference. We should not allow liberalism to redefine our memory of this day. We should not forget that in addition to being a day of great suffering and great herorism, the 9/11 attacks were a political act, an act of war aimed not merely at the victims, but to the country as a whole. And that war is far from over.
I think back to that day and realize that there was more wisdom on the back of a Ford-F150 than most of what you’ll hear on CNN. It’s still Time for the U.S. to Get Some!