Sixteen years. That’s how long it’s been since the worst terrorist attack in American history. A total of 2,996 people dead or never accounted for. Symbols of American power struck without warning: both World Trade center towers and the Pentagon. The actions of informed passengers on a fourth plane likely averted a strike on the White House or Congress.
An entire generation had horrifying visions of previously unimaginable events happening in their own nation, with memories firmly etched into their minds.
They say time heals all wounds. And for the families of those lost that day I hope there is some measure of truth in it. But there is a flip side: such events fade in the public consciousness, such that they no longer inform or shape how the nation acts. To quote the opening of the movie “The Fellowship of the Ring,”
“…some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth…” (click “continue reading” below to continue)
And yet, despite the many comparisons to Pearl Harbor that week, the nation has largely moved on. I wonder how many average Americans know we still have troops in Iraq, and that we’ve recently decided to increase (again) the number in Afghanistan. How many Americans stop to think about how many people around them may have served a tour of duty in the Middle East, with no sense of “mission accomplishment” beyond having survived to return home? (Not to mention the number who didn’t return home, or didn’t return home whole.) Despite our ongoing “war on terrorism” (or whatever it’s called today), it’s not an issue high on the average American’s daily list of things to think about.
This week at my church we held services for an outstanding Christian gentleman who, in his 90s, was in good health and still serving the church when he took a fall. To everyone’s shock, he passed away from complications in surgery. I mention him because despite the many times I interacted with him, and that I knew he was a Navy veteran, it was not until the memorial that I learned he had been at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. It was simply something he didn’t bring up on his own. His passing was a reminder to me, a historian, how few there remain among us with personal memory of the horrible events of World War II.
Students in college today have little memory of 9/11 and if they do, it’s mostly vague ones of the reaction of the adults around them. They did not personally process what the rest of us did, particularly when the second plane hit: “this was not an accident. Someone is using commercial airliners to attack us!” They did not watch as traveling became highly cumbersome after the creation of the Transportation Security
Theater Administration. Unlike the largely static Cold War generation before them, the U.S. military today is expected to deploy constantly around the world to “hot spots” as if trying to play a global game of Twister. To today’s teens and early 20-somethings, this is simply the way it’s always been.
While our generation — the one that witnessed 9/11, and in cases like my own were sent overseas in uniform in response — is still at the helm of national policy it’s vital we ensure our nation learned its lessons. There is strong evidence it has not — indeed, that it refuses to. What lessons would those be?
- Robust, restrictive and responsive border controls. In 2016, we issued 108,496 visas to Saudi Arabians (double the 2000 total of 59,358). But as Jon Stewart once said, we don’t have to worry about that, because “a full 20% of the 9/11 hijackers were not from there…” This increase occurred despite growing evidence that parts of the Saudi government were directly responsible for providing operational support to the 19 hijackers of 9/11.
- Even were we to tighten up the visa process, though, the sieve that is our borders allows any number of troublemakers to enter the U.S. with just a little effort. This is proven by the number of criminal aliens arrested after multiple deportations. Since 9/11 we’ve managed to allow the violent MS-13 syndicate to regain a significant foothold within the U.S.
- The military options we have cannot make up for failure in border security at home. Don’t mistake me: the secretive hunt for bin Laden and his network was necessary and appropriate — and should continue for his successors and fellow travelers. But despite a decade and a half of “nation-building,” there is no way for us to wipe out the Islamist ideology worldwide. A strong argument can be made that our long occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan strengthened it, instead, while wearing out our conventional military forces. At the same time, we have continued to increase the number of people entering the U.S. from very problematic areas of the world. Perhaps an apt analogy of our efforts since 9/11 would be kicking over a wasps’ nest, then inviting them to follow you home. (This analogy comes to mind because yesterday I was hosing down a number of such nests in my yard while my son, who knew I couldn’t kill them all individually, watched from the security of a screened-in porch — a porch that provided him better safety than our border does our nation.)
- Globalism and multiculturalism have limits to their benefits. Sure, we should all try to get along. But the fact remains the strongest cultures today are in many ways fundamentally incompatible. Different worldviews, different values, different resultant ways of living. The Sharia law of Islam cannot be spliced together with the republicanism of the Founders of the U.S. Nor can the Chinese authoritarianism of which Tom Friedman is so fond be combined with the free market capitalism that built the West (and which, for the most part, has now devolved into crony corporatism). These worldviews are each written with different DNA. So long as that remains the case, there is a need for borders and clear jurisdictions where a particular culture forms the framework for daily life. Those who live in a particular jurisdiction should decide who gets to move in among them, and to expect those of foreign birth to assimilate to their new culture, not the other way around. This is one of the basic patterns of human living that our transnational “leadership” has tried to overturn. In doing so, they have only managed to create an unsustainable situation that will likely revert to historical norms with great violence and disruption.
There are other lessons, of course. But this post is already bordering on treatise-length, so I will stop here. The summary takeaway is this: while many of today’s political “hot topics” in the U.S. (immigration, global trade) have roots that go back well before 9/11, that event briefly brought them into clear contrast for the entire nation. Rather than addressing those root issues responsibly, our leaders instead have tried to lull everyone back to sleep. (Remember, kids, Islam is a “religion of peace” and “free trade” makes everyone better off.)
Unless we pause each year to consider this anniversary seriously, they will succeed. And our descendants will pay the price. There is no more road for the can to be kicked down.