The terrorism fears around this subject should also remind us that the fear of a “save haven” in Afghanistan continues to be an underscrutinized concept. Suppose there had been a terrorist plot here? What role would a safe haven have played in it? The key assets Hasan had, from the point of view of committing acts of violence against Americans, were access to weapons and a physical location inside the United States of America.
This is the reality that still haunts me with respect to 9/11. We assume that we have understood that event by now. And I once thought I did. It was a declaration of war and we had to fight back. We went to Afghanistan and removed the Taliban regime; we went to Iraq to prevent al Qaeda getting WMDs and to open up a democratic space where Islamism would falter. I supported both responses.
I worry now, as we peer through the wreckage, that we were simply trying to make our enemy a conventional one, so that we could defeat them by conventional means. Invade a country; change a regime; even use the military for endless attempts at nation-building to "drain the swamp" that brings terror to our cities. We'd beat them that way, wouldn't we? Our power was unrivaled, wasn't it?
So how are we where are we now? In Afghanistan, the Taliban has been empowered by the long occupation and the government is as corrupt as ever and fast losing its own people. Al Qaeda have simply moved to Pakistan where they remain safely as long as they duck drone attacks. In Iraq, we actually gave al Qaeda a new opening and had to spend billions and lose thousands of lives to push them back. Even now, we have no guarantee they will not re-emerge in a still deeply divided country when far fewer American troops will soon remain. And through all this, we threw away one core advantage: our moral high ground. Through torture and the mass killings of civilians, through allowing sectarian genocide in Iraq and giving the world Abu Ghraib and Gitmo as symbols of the new America, we even managed to blur the lines between civilization and barbarism. And in this struggle, our political leaders failed to keep the country united, or the alliance intact.
The awful truth is: what 9/11 revealed, and what it was designed to reveal, is that there is nothing we can really do definitively to stop another one. They had no weapons but our own technology. The training they had was not that sophisticated and the costs of the operation were relatively tiny. There were 19 of them. None of the key perpetrators has been brought to justice. Bin Laden remains at large. If you calculate the costs of that evil attack against the financial, moral and human costs of the fight back, 9/11 was a fantastic demonstration of the power of asymmetry to destroy the West.
Everything that has subsequently transpired has merely deepened that lesson. The US is now bankrupt, trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of our lives, unable even to prevent the two most potentially dangerous Islamist states, Pakistan and Iran, from getting nukes, morally compromised and hanging on to global support only because of a new president who is even now being assaulted viciously at home for such grievous crimes as trying to get more people access to health insurance.
Yes, security is much better. Yes, it's amazing that more attacks have not taken place. Yes, Muslim-Americans have not joined Jihad the way many Europeans have. Yes, we have gained some small benefits from ousting the Taliban, and Saddam ... although at terrible costs. But we have done nothing to show that we can really win this war by the methods we have used so far. The biggest blow to al Qaeda as a global brand has not been what we have done to them, but what they have done to themselves, by their flagrant violence against fellow Muslims, their nihilism, and their barbaric brutality.
And now, in the wake of Fort Hood, we face the possibility of radicalizing Muslims in America and polarizing more Americans against them. This does not help. Sure, it is not easy - countering real Islamist danger without provoking more of it. And it is not fair that this monstrous religious terror should exist at all in a free society that did nothing to deserve its attack. But it is what it is. I worry when I read David Brooks this morning:
The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality. It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy. It ignored the fact that this narrative can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the U.S. as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.
Yes and no. Yes, this war is everywhere, because it really exists in the fundamentalist psyche. But we must resist - for those very reasons - the assumption that this is a "struggle against Islam", not Islamism. Maybe this was just a slip of the pen. But how easy it is even for decent smart folk like David to slide into the Manichean world of the fundamentalist, which itself subtly shifts the playing field to the fundamentalists' advantage.
As American politics itself curdles some more into the core divide between fundamentalism and liberalism, the impact of the post-9/11 century deepens. And the murderous marketers of divine certainty make progress - at home and abroad.
(Photo: A man's shadow is shown on a American flag at a victims memorial wall December 11, 2001 near the wreckage of the World Trade Center at Ground Zero in New York. A ceremony December 11 marked the three month anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the Trade Center. More than three thousand people died in the attacks on the twin towers, September 11, 2001. By Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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