9/11 was a moment of utter moral clarity that has been succeeded by twelve years of moral chaos. Twelve years of duplicity, flim-flam, double-dealing, humbug. Twelve years of timorousness, incompetence, impotence.
Thousands of lives have been sacrificed in vain; inconceivable amounts of money have gone to waste. America’s financial security and its international standing have been imperiled. And all for one simple reason: because, from the very beginning, the powers that be, in both political parties, chose to lie about the nature of the enemy we were up against.
In the years before World War II began, Winston Churchill spoke up again and again in the House of Commons about the danger that the Nazis represented. His colleagues responded to his eloquent, passionate warnings with ridicule. He was considered a bore, a nag. Some of his fellow Tories viewed his preoccupation with Hitler as an embarrassment. But he didn’t waver. He knew whereof he spoke, he saw what was coming, and he did what he saw as his duty.
On September 11, 2001, only a couple of hours after the planes struck the World Trade Center, President Bush went on TV and promised the nation that we’d get the “folks” who did this. “Folks”? Would Churchill ever have called the Nazis “folks”? The tone was wrong, right from the start. Tone matters.
In the same TV address, Bush asked everyone to join him in a moment of silence. But it was not a time to bow one’s head in silence. It was a time to be enraged, to speak the facts firmly and clearly, and to plan appropriate retributive action. It was time for a moment of truth.
But nobody wanted to speak the truth.
Three days later, Bush was at the National Cathedral for an “interfaith service of prayer and remembrance” that had been jointly planned by the Cathedral and the White House. An account of the service at the Cathedral’s website recalls that the participants “spoke English, Hebrew, and Arabic” and “stood side by side—Jew, Muslim, Christian.” At the service, the Dean of the Cathedral offered up a prayer to “God of Abraham and Mohammed and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Muzammil H. Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) said a prayer. “Today,” pronounced Bush, in his comments at the service, “we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called the warm courage of national unity. This is a unity of every faith, and every background.”
And there, in that service, just a few days after 9/11, you can see it all – the seeds of everything that has been so terribly, tragically wrong about the last twelve years. I remember watching Siddiqi pray on TV that day and thinking: “OK, who is this guy?” The Investigative Project on Terrorism has sinceanswered that question at length. Siddiqi’s group, the ISNA, is tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, and his mosque hosted a lecture by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the man behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. In a 2000 speech, Siddiqi said that “America has to learn that because if you remain on the side of injustice, the wrath of God will come.” In 1996, he told followers that “Allah’s rules have to be established in all lands, and all our efforts should lead to that direction.” He’s also praised jihad as “the path” to “honor” and expressed support for the death penalty for gays in Muslim countries.
And yet there he was, in that pulpit, at that service. His presence there was an obscenity; to invite his participation was an act of either utter ignorance or sheer dhimmitude. But it was only the first of many such acts. It was the template for the post-9/11 era, the new American order, during which we were told by everyone, from our president on down, that the 9/11 terrorists had hijacked not only airplanes but their religion as well, which, of course, was a religion of peace. That, we were told, was what Islam means: peace. Those of us who knew better and who dared to say so were vilified as bigots, even as the likes of Saddaqi were celebrated as noble bridge builders.
Before too long, the all-important goal of seeking out and destroying the people who had carried out the 9/11 attacks – and sending a lesson to any others who might be tempted to mount similar operations – morphed into a dubious effort to democratize the Muslim world. For a time, Osama bin Laden himself got lost in the shuffle. In the immediate wake of 9/11, Bush committed the U.S. to capturing him “dead or alive”; just a year later he said offhandedly that getting bin Laden really wasn’t a priority.
Meanwhile much of the political left, driven not by a reasoned critique of the administration’s arguments for war but by a fierce partisan animus that in some cases seemed to border on psychosis, made fools like Cindy Sheehan their spokespeople and equated Bush with Saddam Hussein himself.
The brief interlude of national unity on 9/11 soon became a distant memory. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad spoke at Columbia University in 2007, the audience of PC students and professors cheered him, a bloodthirsty tyrant – partly to prove that they weren’t Islamophobes, and partly because he was the enemy of their enemy, Bush, and thus, presumably, their friend. Many antiwar groups were little more than fronts for jihadist organizations.
In the name of wartime security, a massive national surveillance apparatus was put in place, and airports were staffed with TSA screeners whose solemn task it was to make sure we weren’t carrying fingernail clippers or overly large tubes of toothpaste. Yet while these clowns were busy patting down wheelchair-bound octogenarians from rural Vermont and babies in diapers, Army officials were issuing commendations to a major at Fort Hood who’d made clear his jihadist sympathies and who, in 2009, ended up slaughtering 13 people in a clear-cut act of Islamic terrorism. Major Hasan explicitly affirmed that he was a jihadist – but his superiors, the media, politicians, and ultimately the judge and lawyers at his trial refused to treat him as one, insisting instead on characterizing his massacre as workplace violence. This sort of Orwellian lie was not the exception but the rule: in 2013, even John McCain was capable of saying, with a straight face, that “Allahu akbar” means “Thank God.”
The antiwar movement was ardent, vehement, cutthroat – and evaporated almost instantly the moment Obama succeeded Bush. (“A lot of people,” Ed Asner said the other day, by way of explaining the disappearance of so many Hollywood celebrities from the antiwar ranks since 2008, “don’t want to feel anti-black by being opposed to Obama.”) Meanwhile, the level of disinformation about Islam intensified. Bush, while seeking to strengthen America’s ties to its allies, had massaged the Muslim world with insipid rhetoric about our shared heritage as “people of faith”; Obama, while kicking our allies in the teeth, spun outrageous fantasies about Islam, transforming, in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, fourteen centuries of primitive brutality into a glittering parade of moral, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual triumphs.
As the years after 9/11 went by, other major acts of jihadist terrorism occurred around the world. Each time, the mantra from on high was the same: these crimes had nothing to do with Islam. Government officials, military leaders, authors, filmmakers, journalists, teachers, professors – all played their part in obscuring the truth about Islam. When the “Arab Spring” came along, only the systematically enforced ignorance about Islam made it possible for so many Americans to respond enthusiastically to the overthrow by religious fanatics of relatively secular, America-friendly regimes.
Most disgraceful of all is the fact that even American servicemen and women were lied to. Many of those who were sent to Afghanistan and Iraq thought they were going there to protect good Muslims, who embodied the innate peacefulness of Islam, from bad Muslims, who had betrayed the faith of their fathers by claiming to kill in Allah’s name. These soldiers thought they were going to bring freedom, equality, and secular government to people who truly wanted those things and who would be grateful for them. These soldiers went into harm’s way unaware of the vast gulf between their own Western mental world and the Islamic mental world of the individuals, both “friends” and “enemies,” with whom they’d be dealing. That was the greatest crime of all: keeping the soldiers on the ground in the dark about the true nature of the enemy.
During the Cold War, America was governed by men who’d fought in World War II and who thus knew how fragile freedom is and how serious their task was. American voters, who had also lived through World War II, got it as well. They understood responsibility. Too many Americans today, alas, live in a historyless, present-obsessed fog of peace, privilege, and prosperity. Some of them barely grasp the difference between voting for president and voting for the People’s Choice Awards. And more than a few are driven by a concept of morality that isn’t about making tough decisions in the name of what’s right but is, rather, about doing whatever makes them feel non-racist, non-judgmental, non-prejudiced. It’s all about image – the way they appear to others, and the way they appear to themselves.
9/11 was a day of heroes and of villains, of stark contrasts between good and evil. Yet how quickly the politicians, journalists, and others in positions of power managed to make a muddle of it all. Instead of witnessing a democratization of the Middle East, we experienced a steady Islamization of the West. Instead of seeing freedom bloom in the Islamic world, we saw a rise in Western censorship and self-censorship on the subject of Islam. Some high-profile figures in the West have been put on trial for speaking the truth about Islam, while others have made sophisticated arguments for limiting freedom of expression and for introducing sharia law into Western courts.
When Osama bin Laden finally was taken out in 2011, almost ten years after 9/11 – an event that one might have expected to restore at least some degree of the national unity we experienced that day – it just brought on more fractiousness. Some on the left thought it had been criminal to kill bin Ladin (or, at least, unseemly to celebrate his demise); some on the right complained that Obama had taken too much credit for the Navy SEALs’ work.
The last twelve years have underscored the vital importance of real leadership. It’s impossible not to compare the leaders we have had during these years to Churchill – and impossible not to dream of what might have been. Even now, Americans in positions of authority are still telling lies about Islam. As a result, millions of Americans still don’t understand the meaning of what happened that day. For many of them, a mere ten-minute lesson in the basics would make a huge difference. But they’ve never had that ten-minute lesson. Instead they’ve been inundated with untold thousands of hours of disinformation. It doesn’t just hamper their understanding of 9/11; it renders them incapable of fully comprehending, and intelligently addressing, every new challenge that comes along in the Muslim world, such as the question of whether the U.S. should bomb Syrian government installations – thus effectively allying itself with some of the very people who attacked us on 9/11 – or should, rather, focus its energies on trying to protect what is left of the free West from the ever-spreading toxin of Islamic rage.
It’s one thing to say “never forget.” But unless you have some sense of the strong, deep ideological roots of what happened on 9/11, remembering the horrific images themselves doesn’t, practically speaking, really amount to much. Rarely, if ever, has the truth of Santayana’s sober warning about knowing the past or being condemned to repeat it been so starkly manifest.