By lex, on September 4th, 2011
As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks draw nigh, one senses a desire to try and frame the last ten years in some sepia tinted portrait, place it in a box and put it away. It’s been a long ten years, and – having seen all too well what we are up against overseas, and having witnessed so much human tragedy in the fight against violent extremism – you get the feeling that we’d like to talk about something else.
Having borne witness to the previously unimaginable, we now submit to the hitherto unthinkable. The supposed excesses of the Patriot Act – which were once hurled at our previous president as a poleaxe – are now comfortably settled law, their efficacy as a political weapon blunted by his successor’s usage. Neither does the “national shame” of Guantanamo form any meaningful part of our political discourse, those who once railed against the prison having been handed the keys, as well as a peek behind the curtains. At airports we consider ourselves fortunate if we only have to remove our shoes, but if commanded we calmly submit ourselves to full-body imaging and repugnant physical searches with a sigh, straining to remember a time when it was not so.
Six thousand men and women, the flower of our youth, have gone forth never to return to their homes or families alive. Billions in treasure have been spent on overseas wars, and trillions will be committed to the care for those who came home much reduced in physical and mental circumstances. A secret army has arisen, its DNA helically inter-meshed with a newly bloody-minded CIA. Their purpose is not to win hearts and minds, not to gain territory or impose peace. They exist to kill, and they have become industrially competent at their work.
But while we have remained transfixed with shaping the course of events in Araby, the centrifuges spin ever faster in Iran, and China not so quietly strains at its regional bonds. Latin America too is newly assertive, and we – having been so busy fighting that we have not had time to lead – have lost both fighters and leadership.
Osama bin Laden is dead, his organization in tatters, his lieutenants cowering in fear of overhead drones. So also is his vision of a new Islamic caliphate with himself atop the throne of skulls. And although he was at least partly successful in enmeshing the West in a bloody wars of will and attrition, what rises now from the tyrannical ashes of the Arab Middle East bears for now little resemblance to his fevered reveries: The restless masses of Damascus, Cairo, Tripoli and Tunis are heir to many dissatisfactions, but their desire to be ruled by violent theocrats remains largely unexpressed.
It is entertaining to muse through alternative histories, and wonder what our economic well-being, at least, might be had those resources remained within the boundaries of our island, and placed to more productive uses. While we do so we must keep in mind the underpinnings of Western Europe’s economic malaise, which is largely if not entirely disconnected from our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were perhaps wise, from a purely parochial standpoint, of avoiding more than token entanglement in America’s overseas adventures. For the time being at least, unburdened by the weight of Europe’s demographic decline, we would be wise to avoid their domestic excesses.
It is said that one can never truly go home again, and as we think about those last days of innocence ten years ago, it is with a profound sense of the cost; all that we’ve sacrificed, the lives we’ve both given and taken, the treasure spent wisely and that wasted. Our shock and grief turned to anger, our anger to action, our actions to loss, our loss to sadness. The hard part is the realization that while we can reckon our expenditures in blood and treasure to the drop and penny, we still have no clear picture of what we have gained.
While bin Laden is dead, and his organization shattered, his dream still finds murderous expression in the actions of solitary fools. We must remain proportionately vigilant, even as we husband our resources. The world is not done with America, nor we with the world. There will be new challenges, at home and abroad.
Ten years ago, nineteen young Arab men gave their lives to change the course of history. Six thousand of our own demonstrated with their own lives that America would have a vote in writing that history. Tens of thousands more will bear the marks of that effort for the rest of their lives.
We must keep faith with them, and we must find a way to rebuild the America that they fought for.
“The moving finger writes, and having written moves on.
Nor all thy piety nor all thy wit, can cancel half a line of it.” — Omar Khayyam