Commentary Magazine


More Than Memorials Needed on 9/11

The 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was commemorated with solemn ceremonies throughout the nation with special focus on those in New York and Washington. Names of the victims were read aloud. Tears were shed. Speeches were made. Eventually all the permanent memorials, including the long-delayed one at Ground Zero in New York, will be finished which will enable us to go on with these ceremonies that will continue to pull at the heart strings of those who attend them. But as appropriate as all this may be, it must be acknowledged that not only is not enough, but that it is also at times too much of the wrong thing.

To say this is not to downplay the importance of such memorials which pay proper homage to the victims of the attacks and to those who bravely and tirelessly sought to aid the victims, recover the bodies, and heal the damage done by al-Qaeda’s assault on America. But after 12 years it is clear that too much of our focus is on the emotions the memory of that terrible day evokes and not enough on the hard conclusions that still need to be drawn from what was but one chapter, albeit the most painful, in the war being waged on the United States by Islamist terrorists. The willingness of all too many Americans, including many of those in law enforcement and government, to increasingly adopt a September 10th mentality about vigilance about terrorism makes a mockery of these memorials. So, too, does the fact the al-Qaeda-connected terrorists who killed four Americans in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 are still walking around free.

The nature of the debate earlier this year over the activities of the National Security Agency in monitoring and intercepting messages going to and from foreign addresses and emails potentially related to sources of terror demonstrated just how far we’ve come in 12 years. While concern over possible invasions of privacy is not unreasonable, the level of cynicism about government was only made possible by a sense on the part of many on both the left and the right that the war with al-Qaeda is as much in our past as the one on Nazism or Japanese imperialism. This mentality is the result not only of America’s successes in preventing a repeat of 9/11 but a desire to forget about the threat that Islamist ideology poses to the West and to our collective security. The same problem applies to the attempts by many in the press and other liberal critics of pro-active counter-terrorism policy to hamstring the efforts of the New York Police Department from conducting surveillance of Islamists and their gathering places.

While all pay lip service to the 9/11 tragedy, a belief that any focus on those who inspire and commit such atrocities, whether from abroad or homegrown, is an offense to Islam has replaced the zeal to protect the nation that was universally shared in the months and years after the attack. Partly inspired by the myth of an anti-Muslim backlash after 9/11 that remains entrenched in the minds of much of the media, what we have now is a powerful anti-anti-terror mentality that interprets any attention to radical Islam as an act of prejudice.

It should also be admitted that war-weariness after the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has also led to a new birth of isolationism in our political culture. This dangerous mindset now acts as a drag on any effort to assert American power or influence abroad. Though rooted in an understandable and traditional suspicion of federal power (especially now that this power is in the hands of a president with little respect for constitutional rights), it has the potential to do great damage to America’s ability to defend its interests and its security abroad.

Those who understand the legacy of 9/11 and drew the proper conclusions from the mistakes that led to it do not advocate permanent war or the end of individual liberty in the name of security. But what they do know is that the war that 9/11 was but one battle of isn’t over. While Osama bin Laden is dead (as President Obama never tires of reminding us), al-Qaeda is alive. That was proved again in Benghazi as it was in the growth and newfound strength of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring.

While 9/11 memorials are fine, what we really need is a government that understands the threats from both terror groups and states (such as Iran) that remain a threat to the peace of the world. Like winning the equally frustrating and long Cold War, beating them requires more patience and endurance than democracies are likely to have. But beat them we must, and that means Americans must reject the siren song of isolationism while also not being fooled into thinking a 9/11 memorial is an excuse for an anti-terror strategy.

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