As a national tragedy, as countless individual tragedies, as a blow to the pride of the United States and as a date of infamy, Sept. 11, 2001 will now rank with Dec. 7, 1941. —September 12, 2001
I wasn’t scared by 9/11. Even then, I felt instinctively what I know now: Islamist terrorists are losers. Yes, they are dangerous. But they are also throwbacks. They hate the modern state, which the Western world invented to dispense justice and mobilize power. Instead of thinking in terms of states, they believe religion should order the world.
But the power of the state is tremendous, and there is a reason it has triumphed around the world: it is stronger than its opponents. That is not something to celebrate thoughtlessly, especially in America, a nation founded on distrust of the overweening state. But when kept within proper limits, the state is vital, and if we keep faith with our traditions, we will beat those who based their doctrines on rejecting them.
What scared me after 9/11 was the reaction I saw at Yale. It was narcissistic, self-absorbed and defeatist. Kissinger once remarked that the masochism of the American intellectual is inexhaustible, and after 9/11, I feared he was right. In private, faculty said America had it coming. In conversations, they remarked with self-regard that Yale would be Bin Laden’s next target. The Yale Political Union offered a puerile resolution that terrorism was a problem for the police.
I realize the 1960s poisoned American liberalism and turned it into a religion of self-doubt, with the university as its church and the faculty as its priesthood. But I still found the responses around me inexplicable.
Everyone at Yale had ancestors who had come to America from somewhere else. The overwhelming majority came voluntarily, in pursuit of a better life. And they found it. In America, more people have lived in peace, prosperity and freedom than have experienced these blessings elsewhere in the history of the world, which has been a story of poverty and oppression.
I instinctively felt that the institutions we inherited from the Founders, based on truths that work, are worth fighting for. Even before 9/11, I was puzzled by the academy’s relentless focus on the shadows at the expense of the large, bright truth of America that should stand front and center. After 9/11, I recognized that this was not a passing fancy born of the flighty 1990s. There really were many people at Yale who were afraid not of the terrorists, but of us.
I regret only one of my comments to the News after 9/11, which was that 9/11 was a tragedy. It was no such thing. Tragedies are inherent and inevitable: Hamlet had to be Hamlet. 9/11 was a deliberate attack on the United States that deserved to be met with force, and with a national consensus that the terrorists of 9/11 were one manifestation of the rise of radical Islamism, and the even broader breakdown of international order.
At the time, I likened 9/11 to Pearl Harbor. As a bolt from the blue that should have been foreseen, that was fair enough. But 10 years later, I recognize that the comparison is imperfect. Not because we cannot march to victory now like we did in the Pacific War, but because 9/11 has not generated the national consensus that I believed it would, the kind of consensus on the necessity of leadership that flowed from Pearl Harbor. The rot that I saw at Yale proved to be far deeper, and more influential, than I expected.
We are today on the verge of quitting the war in Afghanistan. That, remember, was the “good war.” It was a direct response to 9/11. It was sanctioned by the entire Congress, and by every conceivable international authority. The war was not fought to put a bullet through Bin Laden, as welcome as that is. It was fought to deprive our enemies of a sanctuary that they used to plot against us, and against many others around the world.
Now we are quitting because, as a nation of 310 million with a GDP of $15 trillion, we are unwilling to patiently devote the time, blood and treasure to ensure that enemies who are dedicated to hurting us and overthrowing the international system do not come back to power. That will be seen by our enemies as weakness. It is weakness.
The sacrifices asked of us, though precious, are modest in comparison to our size and our responsibilities. Yet we are drifting back into regarding terrorism as a problem for the police and an occasional drone strike, and into our former oblivion about the need for American leadership to protect ourselves, our interests and our friends, and to support the system which we have done so much to build, and of which we are the keystone.
9/11 was no tragedy. But far from being an attack that roused us united from our slumbers, it did no more than disturb the solipsistic nap of those who are more afraid of the evil lurking in the hearts of their neighbors, and our history, than they are of the evil of those who hate us and the order we represent. Our resolve has proven to be less enduring and potent than I hoped. Someday, on a future 9/11, we will pay for that.
Ted Bromund is the Margaret Thatcher Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.