by Victor Davis Hanson
The Never-ending Day
Like millions of Americans, I did not sleep much on the night of September 11. I was horrified all day, but by the evening of September 11, 2001, increasingly angry. Horrified because 3,000 innocents had been murdered not just by 7th-century fanatical terrorists, but by cruel Dark-Age murderers who, in the best parasitical fashion, had managed to gnaw at their distracted host from the inside.
That duplicity was eerie and creepy — the premeditated design of Middle Easterners to live among and blend in for months with the very culture they despised and wished to destroy. Their hatred soon translated into sixteen acres of ash in Manhattan and a smoking Pentagon. Most of us could no longer watch the tape of those jumping off the World Trade Center, calibrating in extremis whether it was worse to implode on the concrete or be incinerated in their offices. Those images have never left us.
The entire day was ghoulish, and by evening, like some of you, I was worried that a number of post-modern Western ideologies of the last three decades were not only known to bin Laden’s gang, but comprehensively so to the point they would be used serially against the West in brilliantly sinister fashion. Was 9/11 the beginning of something even worse? No civilization could endure three or four successive attacks such as those on September 11.
Our Problem With “Appeasement”
The word “appeasement” has had a volatile history. In the 1930s it meant purported sobriety and circumspection in preferring reasonable concessions to an aggressor in lieu of risking destructive war. Appeasement grew in response to the horrors of World War I and the theory that relatively minor differences had eventually led to nightmares like the Somme and Verdun. But by the end of World War II, appeasement for the first time evolved into a term of scorn, a near-criminal naiveté that had gotten 50 million killed by failing to confront an ascendant Japan and Germany when they were comparatively still weak.
Although during the Cold War “appeasement” mostly remained a pejorative term, it also reflected poorly, in purportedly McCarthyite fashion, on any who leveled the charge — as if granting a few concessions was the smarter and more reasonable alternative to mindless preparedness and brinkmanship in the nuclear age.
So when the cloud rose over Manhattan, we were in a strange never-never land of having long appeased radical Islam while fearful of confessing just that, as if it were worse to admit to, than to have embraced, appeasement. Under the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton administrations, the US had not reacted strongly to the murder of Americans in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, East Africa, and Yemen, or after the first attempt to topple the World Trade Center. We failed to grasp that with each attack, Islamic terrorists were becoming both more sophisticated and bolder. Even though bin Laden lacked the comparative resources of a like-minded Attila the Hun or Hitler, it was going to be hard after 9/11 in any meaningful way to convince al Qaeda — or for the matter millions in the United States — that such attacks on the United States should be synonymous with the jihadists’ own destruction.
A much broader political correctness was even more worrisome. It was plain as day that bin Laden was a fascistic reactionary, whose widely disseminated crackpot ideas of reestablishing some mythical, all-powerful caliphate from the Euphrates to the Gibraltar would translate into the modern world as opportunistic murdering of Westerners, Shiites, Hindus, homosexuals, and outspoken feminists. Sharia law, after all, was a throwback to the pre-Enlightenment Dark Ages. Yet al Qaeda’s megaphones also understood that as the “Other” — non-Western, non-American, non-white — they had special claims to universal victimhood among influential Western elites. Indeed, multiculturalism had preached that contemporary misery in the non-Western world was never self-induced. It was either a legacy of colonialism or current imperialism and corporate exploitation, a deductive doctrine that trumped even classical liberalism on many campuses. In other words, there would be a great debate soon over whether cosmic forces — the usual suspects of US foreign policy, support for Israel, multinational corporations, and globalization — had understandably forced a desperate bin Laden to lash out. That al Qaeda was misogynist, racist, bigoted, and homophobic would be more than offset by a reluctance to so condemn a non-Western enterprise from the former Third World. Soon even Dr. Zawahiri, like a campus PC diversity administrator, on cue was whining over the anguish of the lack of US campaign finance reform and the dangers of global warming.
Who Is To Judge?
Then there was the additional burden of moral equivalence and cultural relativism, the twin pillars of postmodern thought. To suggest that there were elements within Islam that made it ripe for exploitation by al Qaeda, or to suggest that tens of millions in the Muslim Arab world were receptive to bin Laden’s message of blaming the West, America, or “the Jews” for the Middle East’s unending misery — rather than self-induced religious intolerance, gender apartheid, tribalism, dictatorship, and unproductive statism — would mean to exercise judgment based on empirical evidence. And that was something unlikely for many of our postmodern thinkers who insisted that exercising independent judgment was instead being judgmental — a false “objectivity” predicated entirely on privilege that came as a result of insidious racial, gender, or class oppression. Words critical to this new war like “evil,” “cruel,” “terrorist,” or even “jihadist,” “radical Islamist,” or “Islamic fascist,” would invoke a war of words at home almost as polarizing as the attacks of bin Laden himself. (The logical end to this debate was “overseas contingency operation” and “man-caused disaster.”) One major terrorist act by a criminal thug like Timothy McVeigh who did not invoke his Christianity as a prime motivating force would nevertheless “balance” a thousand terrorist attacks by self-described jihadists who screamed “Allah Akbar” as the bombs went off. After all, “who are we to judge, when every religion sparks terrorism”?
Give Peace a Chance
I thought too of the allure of utopian pacifism. Through omnipresent peace and conflict studies programs, we were taught that war was an aberration, one to be best remedied by arbitration, concessions, international diplomacy, and dialogue. In contrast, some twenty-five centuries of Western history tragically suggested otherwise: that war was unfortunately common, grew out of natural and primordial human impulses like fear, honor, and perceived self-interest, broke out through perceptions of weakness, was mostly ended by victory or defeat, and fortunately prevented by preparedness and deterrence, while peace was insured only by the defeated’s change of government or national attitude.
Yet to suggest that bin Laden had no real legitimate grievances against America (the US, in fact, unlike Russia or China, prior to 9/11 had sacrificed blood and treasure to help Muslims in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Somalia), that he sought only power, honor, and influence, that his emotions were reified through perception of American indifference, that he believed that he might gain more than he might lose by bombing America, and that his movement could only be stopped by defeating and humiliating his agents and adherents — all that was not just a hard sell, but at odds with decades of therapeutic culture.
That night I had another worry that we would see a new rise in anti-Semitism, which over the last half-century had largely transmogrified from the old, crude right-wing notion of shifty, clubby Jews and Christ killers to a far more sophisticated liberal and often on-campus cover of romanticizing Palestinian victims while demonizing Israeli Zionists and colonialists. In other words, bin Laden’s crude anti-Semitic rants in our generation might not be condemned outright as Hitlerian nonsense, but quietly and insidiously result in worries about “the Jewish lobby” and “undue interference in US foreign policy” and “neo-con conspiracies” that had forced American policy to take positions that naturally would cause “chickens home to roost.”
By 2001 Western sophisticates could with impunity blame Jews by simply professing to being nobly “anti-Zionist.” In this regard, Europe, the historic embryo of anti-Semitism and by the twenty-first century mostly disarmed, would be especially prone to finger-pointing at Israel and its Jewish supporters in hopes of winning exemption from Islamic terrorism. Self-interest — few Jews/ millions of Arabs, little oil in Israel, lots elsewhere in the Middle East, little danger of Jewish terrorists, lots of worry about Islamist suicide bombers — would be a force multiplier as well.
I was right that night that all these relativist doctrines played out after September 11, but quite wrong that they would do so to the extent of ensuring a second attack of the magnitude of September 11. For that decade of relative security at home (remember the canard of “not if, but when”), we are indebted to the measures taken by the government following September 11.
But why do we know they succeeded for ten years? Not just because al Qaeda has failed to repeat anything as ghastly as the attack on the Pentagon and the destruction of the World Trade Center — after dozens of foiled attempts to take down buildings, blow up airplanes, and explode bridges. Better proof is that the fiercest critics of the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, wiretaps, intercepts, renditions, tribunals, preventive detention, drone targeted assassination attacks, and the Iraq war, who insisted they were either lawless or useless, went quiet after seven years of loud opposition amid security from attack — once President Obama embraced or, indeed, expanded, all these protocols that he once had so vehemently denounced.
We can rail at the occasional stupidity of TSA procedures at our airports and lament the botched pre-surge Iraq occupation without denying that we owe thanks to President Bush and Vice President Cheney for crafting the mechanisms of our defense and the gallant soldiers and law enforcement officials who implemented them — and, yes, in ironic fashion to President Obama for continuing and often intensifying the very practices that he, as a candidate, so fiercely derided and tried so much to weaken, then as president inherited, and at last apparently came to appreciate.
What a strange decade it was.
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson