Remembering why we remember: 9/11, 19 years later

Remembering why we remember: 9/11, 19 years later
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The most notable story about this year’s anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is that those officially responsible for the commemoration tried to cancel it.

The 9/11 Memorial and Museum quickly reversed itself. The outcry over its mid-August announcement that the annual ceremony would be canceled, because of fears that conducting the “Tribute of Light” in lower Manhattan could expose electrical workers to COVID-19, was swift and intense. The passion reflects how deeply Americans still feel the pain, 19 years later, brought on by the slaughter of nearly 3,000 of our fellow citizens — killed by jihadists who hijacked four jumbo jets and used them as missiles.

Alas, when it comes to the threat we face, Americans always have been more determined to see it for what it is, and to remember its atrocities, than have the government officials and quasi-official institutions that endeavor to frame it for us.

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Those attacks on our homeland took more lives than the Pearl Harbor attack that plunged us into World War II. Yet, the recent effort to un-remember them is nothing new. It is of a piece with the Obama-era initiative to transmogrify Sept. 11 into a “National Day of Service”  — a studied shift away from its designation as “Patriot Day” by Congress, just weeks after 9/11, as American forces mobilized to rout al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

That became known as the “War on Terror,” a sobriquet that emphasized our enemies’ tactic to the exclusion of our enemies’ identity. In the Obama years, the War on Terror was downgraded to an “overseas contingency operation,” while lethal jihadist strikes were sloughed off as “man-caused disasters.” The Obama zeitgeist called for ignoring anti-American ideology in favor of empathizing with anti-American grievances.

To be fair, this was a natural progression as the years thankfully passed without a reprise of 9/11-scale attacks. In response to 9/11, the Bush administration rightly put the nation on a war-footing. This was a strategic departure from Clinton administration policy, which regarded international terror networks backed by rogue regimes as mainly a law-enforcement problem to be addressed by courtroom prosecutions. Yet, even under President Bush, there was the same Clinton-era ambivalence about studying our enemies. 

It was a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge that militants were animated by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Indeed, less than a week after 9/11, Bush visited a Washington mosque to stress that our government saw no link — or, at least, remained committed to seeing no link — between any construction of Islam and the serial mass-murder of Americans by Muslims who were galvanized by Islamic scholars and given material support and safe-haven by Islamist governments.

This week’s run-up to the near-non-commemoration of 9/11 was especially interesting for me. Fox News has been running a multi-part website documentary called “The Rising Crescent.” It recounts the early-1990s emergence of jihadist violence in America, focusing on a prosecution I led against a terror cell under the direction of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called Blind Sheikh. 

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The cell was first detectable in the late ’80s, when it formed up for training exercises in the outskirts of New York City and, in November 1990, when it murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane, the controversial Israeli politician and founder of the Jewish Defense League. Yet law enforcement and political leaders mulishly refused to concede any nexus between the brutality and its animating ideology; Kahane, we were told, was killed by a lone, crazed gunman — Sayyid Nosair. A little over two years later, the cell bombed the World Trade Center; it was radical Islam’s declaration of war on the United States. The chemical explosive that blew a six-story hole in the complex miraculously killed just six adults and an unborn child. The public was shocked, but there was no call for a 9/11-dimension response. Months later, the cell plotted to conduct an even more audacious attack: simultaneous bombings of several New York City landmarks. The conspiracy was thwarted, as were the jihadists’ ambitions to strike American military targets and to assassinate American and foreign officials.

I eventually wrote a memoir of the experience, “Willful Blindness.” Its theme was straightforward: We confronted adherents to a violent anti-Western ideology whose tenets we consciously avoided. In some ways, this was an admirable impulse; our enemies were a segment of the global Islamic community, not all Muslims. In fact, Muslims in the United States courageously joined the U.S. military to combat the enemy; they put their lives on the line working with law enforcement and intelligence services to infiltrate jihadist cells and bolster terrorism prosecutions. Reformist Muslims also struggled, at great risk to themselves, to evolve their belief system away from fundamentalist sharia-supremacism, in all its systematic discrimination, misogyny, cruelty and holy war. It was — and remains — important not to tar all Muslims, and all of Islam in its rich history and diversity, with the same brush.

Yet, it was equally wrong to close our eyes to the centrality of Islam in our enemies’ ideology. Fundamentalism is a literalist interpretation of Muslim scripture, glorifying ancient conquests and caliphates, supported by centuries of Islamic scholarship; it claims many more adherents than we’d like to admit and, to varying degrees, influences Muslim societies the world over. 

By pretending it was not real, or that it was a “false” Islam, we’ve blundered repeatedly. The resulting struggle and sacrifice have exhausted our patience. 

To be sure, President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS reimposes UN sanctions on Iran amid increasing tensions Jeff Flake: Republicans 'should hold the same position' on SCOTUS vacancy as 2016 Trump supporters chant 'Fill that seat' at North Carolina rally MORE is wrong to rebuke “forever wars.” We have learned nothing in 19 years if we do not grasp that the war is real and hot, albeit fluid and diffuse. Long-term commitments of military and covert forces remain necessary to deny jihadist networks the sanctuaries from which they will otherwise attack us. Americans would have accepted this if our government had been straight and clear-eyed about what we are up against. Instead, officials have portrayed jihadists as unrepresentative of any strain of Islam. In that mindset, it was easy to delude ourselves into believing sharia societies could be transformed into Western democracies. It is not the wars that are endless; it is the futile experiment in cultural transformation. 

By insisting the only “true” Islam was relentlessly peaceful and pluralist, we undermined Muslim reformers — after all, why back them if nothing needs reform? By averting our eyes from ideology, we empowered some Islamist organizations tied to groups such as the zealously anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood, as if they were the authentic voice of Muslims in America and the West.

Nineteen years after 9/11, there are great security achievements to applaud. The cooperation between our intelligence agencies and their law-enforcement counterparts is night-and-day better than it was. Our armed forces and their foreign counterparts have remained vigilant, denying terror networks territory and picking off their leaders. The security we’ve enjoyed is not dumb luck; it is the product of heroism and hard work.

But we’re not at the end. 

The “endless war” trope foolishly implies we can somehow dictate the duration of a defensive war — the commencement of which we had no say in, because the enemy chose when to attack us, and the conclusion of which is not at hand, because the enemy persists in fighting. To rationalize pulling out of Afghanistan, the Trump administration is depicting the Taliban as a worthy peace negotiator that has abandoned its support of al Qaeda. No, and no. Meantime, unlike the world as it stood on Sept. 10, 2001, we now face not one but two Sunni jihadist networks — al Qaeda and its breakaway faction, ISIS — that increasingly are capable of large-scale offensive operations. They steadily spread their wings in the Middle East and North Africa, fortified by thousands of fighters annealed in Syria’s civil war. And this doesn’t count the militants among the million refugees who made their way into Europe, or Iran’s enduring commitment to back anti-American jihadists — Sunni and Shiite — with materiel, training and other support. 

We are more capable today. But so are our enemies. They also are hellbent on waging the war, no matter how earnestly we’d like to believe we could end it just by saying so. 

We need to commemorate 9/11. We need to honor our fellow Americans who perished — with more than a light show, even one that is powerful and moving. We need to honor them by grappling with who killed them, and why. We need to renew the solemn vow that we won’t let it happen again.

Former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at National Review Institute, a contributing editor at National Review, and a Fox News contributor. His latest book is “Ball of Collusion.” Follow him on Twitter @AndrewCMcCarthy.