Like JFK's assasination, the moon landing and the Challenger explosion, everyone remembers where they were on Sept. 11, 2001 and how they first heard that the country was under attack. In my own case, I was at home, being out of work at that time. I was not listening to the radio or watching TV, but my wife called me from her car and told me to turn on the radio, that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I tuned into NPR and listened to the report, following it as I would a major earthquake or similar catastrophe.
That was soon to change. I went downstairs to the TV and started channel surfing. As I watched the North tower burn, the second plane slammed into the South tower, followed shortly thereafter by the news that the Pentagon had also been hit in a similar fashion. By then it was clear that we were under attack. The thought was also in my mind that we were now at war. Or would be, just as soon as we had figured out who had done this and why.
The "why" was interesting but seemed self-evident. This was a terrorist attack, perpetrated not with a missile by a country with a conventional military, but with hijacked commercial ariliners by an unknown group of extremists of one stripe or another. And though "al-Qaeda" was not yet a household word, there were plenty of other examples out there. I immediately thought: "The US has become Israel. We now have our own Hamas. And these people are thinking on a much larger scale than blowing up buses and discos."
At that time, it was still conceivable that the attacks were of domestic origin like the Oklahoma City bombings, but it seemed more than likely that they had been carried out by the same people who had previously tried unsuccessfully to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. I sat in my bathrobe in a state of shock, flipping back and forth among the news channels and sampling the carnage. Along with the Two Towers and thousands of lives, the world I had been living in, along with its now petty problems, had been vaporized and was not coming back for a long time, if ever. It was not yet clear what shape the new world would take.
The government was reeling, the Bush administration was scrambling to take evasive action and regroup. Bush gave a rather shaky national address that evening that acknowledged the situation and attempted to reassure the nation that we would respond. It did not inspire much confidence at that time, but the nation as a whole was in shock and not concerned with rating his performance. The big questions were: "Who attacked us?" and "What do we plan to do about it?"
On Sept. 14 Bush visited the rubble at Ground Zero, where he famously grabbed a bullhorn and made the short speech that marked a turning point, both in Bush's presidency and in our history: "I hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
We did not have to wait long. On Sept. 20, Bush spoke to the nation again in an address before Congress and told us who the enemy was and what the stakes were:
Americans have many questions tonight. Americans are asking, "Who attacked our country?"
The evidence we have gathered all points to a collection of loosely affiliated terrorist organizations known as al Qaeda. They are some of the murderers indicted for bombing American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and responsible for bombing the USS Cole.
Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money, its goal is remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.
The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.
The terrorists' directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans and make no distinctions among military and civilians, including women and children. This group and its leader, a person named Osama bin Laden, are linked to many other organizations in different countries, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
There are thousands of these terrorists in more than 60 countries.
Even during the first few hours after the attacks, I was struck by the realization that these attacks were not a precursor to some political message. The attacks were the message, based in an ideology that saw itself triumphing over a weak and Godless liberal West. It was not going to be possible to sit down with the attackers and talk things over in some reasonable fashion. If the example of terrorism against Isareli citizens was not enough of a historical precedent, the Sept. 11 hijackers had made clear their agenda was to kill as many of our people as possible. We would have no choice but to respond and hit back. Naturally, if we did so we would be attacked in retaliation (the well-known "cycle of violence" that applies in the Middle East). And if we did nothing, we would still be attacked, as we had been on Sept. 11. The people who did this would not stop until they achieved their goal, which was the destruction of liberal Western democracy. Bin Laden made that goal crystal clear in his 1998 fatwa:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah, "and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together," and "fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah."
As did countless others, I took to the Internet and started searching on "al-Qaeda","Osama bin Laden","Taliban" and "Islam". I looked for books on those topics, and read numerous magazine articles, trying to understand the nature of this new enemy. What I found was not reassuring. While there were many statements deploring the attacks on the US, it was also clear that the 9/11 terrorists were viewed as heroes in many parts of the Islamic world. After all, they had audaciously struck at the world's lone superpower and had brought down its financial center and damaged its military center. MEMRI.org, which translates the Middle Eastern press into English, was particularly revealing, showing that sympathy for the tactics of terror ran deep in the Arab world, buoyed by charitable donations and support for anti-Israel terror groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. It was reinforced by sermons in mosques and Islamic schools run by fundamentalist religious authorities preaching the doctrine of jihad against the corrupt Western world. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were not, as we were being told, an isolated fringe group. They represented a strain of thinking among a segment of the Islamic world, one which was granted some degree of legitimacy by religious authorities in mosques, universities and governments in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Meanwhile, the international community was rallying to the side of the US, at least rhetorically. "We are all Americans" the French daily Le Monde declared in a Sept. 12 editorial. But world sympathy for the victims of 9/11 was to shortly lapse back into reflexive anti-Americanism as George W. Bush demonstrated that he intended to do more than hold somber memorial services and hang out flags. His response was to take the battle to the enemy. The attack against the Taliban in Afghanistan, widely remembered has having popular support in the US, was controversial in Europe and Bush was warned that taking military action in Aghanistan could open a wider war that nobody wanted, and exacerbate tensions in the already volatile Middle East.
Bin Laden had counted on the US responding as it had to previous terror attacks over the past 30 years: lots of rhetoric, perhaps firing a few cruise missiles or deploying token forces, but mostly circling the wagons and issuing statements deploring the attacks. That had been the pattern under Clinton, and even Ronald Reagan had withdrawn from Beirut after the slaughter of 241 US Marines. But George W. Bush and the people around him correctly saw what had happened as a war, one that had been declared years before and that we now belatedly realized we had to fight. It was Bush's leadership in the weeks and months following 9/11, and his clearsightedness about the war that had been thrust upon him, which caused me to rally behind him.
Three years later, on the anniversary of 9/11, nothing fundamental has changed. The ideology of militant Islam that wrought destruction on New York and Washington three years before has not abated. We have scored some major victories in the opening phase of the war: routed the Taliban, killed or captured two-thirds of al-Qaeda's leaders and destroyed their training camps. But we are fighting a worldwide ideological movement, not a single group, and the religious fanaticism that drove the 9/11 hijackers flourishes around the world and rises, hydra-like to attack mercilessly in country after country: Indonesia, Turkey, Spain, Israel, Iraq, Russia. It kidnaps and beheads hostages, murders children, blows up innocents whether they are dancing in discos or at worship in synagogues. Its targets are everywhere - Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and of course Muslims who do not subscribe to its radical and violent interpretation of their faith and are therefore considered enemies.
The one bright spot? Iraq. "What!?" you say. "Iraq is a developing quagmire, in which we've lost the lives of more than 1,000 brave American soldiers, plus thousands of wounded and thousands of Iraqis killed or injured. Plus, Iraq was not involved in the 9/11 attacks and apparently didn't have the WMDs we thought, which was the basis for the war." Rather than arguing each of those points piecemeal (I have done so elsewhere and I'm sure will be doing so for some time to come), let's instead focus on the strategic importance of what has happened as a result of removing Saddam Hussein from power. It neutralized a major state sponsor of terror, who had attacked neighboring countries unprovoked, tortured and murdered his own population, and had verifiably maintained covert weapons programs in defiance of UN resolutions. Though we do not have evidence that Saddam Hussein actively collaborated on the 9/11 attacks, his regime had contacts with al-Qaeda and openly celebrated the attacks. Were he to have remained in power and international sanctions had been lifted and inspections ended (which was the trend until Bush and Blair began deploying troops and pushing for renewed inspections), the consequences would have undoubtedly been far more dire than what we are seeing today.
Instead, we have a fitfully emerging democratic leadership under interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, planning for the first open elections in over 30 years. They are slowly regaining control of the country, aided by coalition forces and with the support of the popular religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is certainly no puppet of the Bush administration. Sistani played a key role in neutralizing the forces of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf. Opposing them are the so-called "insurgents" who are led by remnants of Saddam's Baathists and radical Islamists supported by Iran, with a third faction under the control of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is linked to al-Qaeda. These groups realize what many of us in the West do not seem to - that Iraq is the central front in the global war on terror and its success represents a lost opportunity for terrorist organizations and their state sponsors like Syria and Iran.
An even partially democratic Iraq would offer an alternative to the current state of the Middle East. It would not necessarily be beholden to the US, any more than France or Germany are, but it would represent a first in the Arab world. Most importantly, it would offer an alternative to the dictatorships, dynasties and theocratic regimes that have ruled the Middle East. It is in regimes like these in which resentment takes root and terrorism flourishes. In a world where terrorist organizations may covertly acquire WMDs from governments for use against the West, such regimes must give way to more open societies who seek trade and prosperity for their people, rather than fostering hatred and resentment of the "decadent" liberal West.
One of the criticisms of US Middle East policy has been that it has long supported non-democratic regimes and turned a deaf ear to those seeking democratic reform in those countries. This hypocrisy forms part of the basis for resentment of the US in the Arab world. Now, the US is at least on the right side of history in the Middle East. The 9/11 attacks may have been the catalyst for this change in policy, but this war was declared decades before the Twin Towers fell. Long-term, creating a dynamic that favors peaceful and democratic governments will be the only effective strategy for defeating the forces of global jihad, just as it defeated Nazism and Communism in the 20th century.