"[F]igure out--plan--what you would do and say if, say, next November there is a terror event on U.S. soil, and a group calling itself al-Qaida 2.0 claims responsibility, and within a few days it turns out they launched their adventure from a haven in Afghanistan."
--Peggy Noonan, last week
in The Wall Street Journal
Some of us are old enough to remember that bright blue-sky morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Just to show you how long it's been, a lot of current American voters weren't born yet when the towers came down.
Wait. That's too passive. The towers didn't just come down. As if they just gave out from the weight. Terrorists brought down the towers. And killed thousands of people. With our own airplanes. That's what losers do. As a wise man once said, only losers hijack airplanes and use them as missiles; winners have air forces.
You might can tell that the anger is still there for some of us. It might take another 20 years, and the defeat of the enemy, before it wanes. Twenty years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a young American president appeared on black-and-white TV, pre-Beatles, as Yuri Gagarin looked down from above.
Lest we forget, JFK was a veteran of World War II's war in the Pacific. You can imagine that the pains of that war were still very real in the hearts of the American public in 1961. The anger was still permitted, even expected.
Just as the Zeroes came out of the clear blue sky, so did the jet commercial airliners for another generation.
We are always so surprised, aren't we? And now, God help us, we are setting up to be surprised again. Here we go, laying our heads back on the pillow, thinking that two oceans--and the world's mightiest military machine--will keep us safe.
"I sometimes wonder," an American diplomat named George F. Kennan once told an audience, "whether in this respect a democracy is not uncomfortably similar to one of those prehistoric monsters with a body as long as this room and a brain the size of a pin: he lies there in his comfortable primeval mud and pays little attention to his environment; he is slow to wrath--in fact you practically have to whack his tail off to make him aware that his interests are being disturbed; but, once he grasps this, he lays about him with such blind determination that he not only destroys his adversary but largely wrecks his native habitat.
"You wonder whether it would not have been wiser for him to have taken a little more interest in what was going on at an earlier date and to have seen whether he could not have prevented some of these situations from arising . . . ."
For years after an unfair fight in Texas, the good guys shouted "Remember the Alamo!" After an explosion in Cuba that once took this country to war against Spain, it was "Remember the Maine!" For years after 9/11, in American editorial columns, the refrain was "Lest we forget."
And now, 20 years after we were disturbed and began thrashing around, are we going back to sleep? Or are we taking a little more interest in our environment? We have conflicting feelings. And conflicting messages coming to us.
Unlike 1941, this generation didn't have to rely on bulletins from radio announcers. Or even wait until the next day's paper to get a printed story explaining the details and reactions. We watched everything unfold, like on a reality show, live on color TV. (We'll have to explain "color TV" to some.) Every explosion, every scream, every cloud of smoke, came through unworldly loud and unfortunately clear.
Peter Jennings wondered if the attack was planned for this particular date because of the emergency number that the Americans used. False reports came through that a bomb had exploded at the State Department too, adding that to the towers, the Pentagon, and didn't a plane go missing? Where was the other plane? Was it heading to the Capitol building in Washington? Or maybe it was on its way to the White House. People went to sleep that night still panicked. What was happening?
It may have been the next day, or the next week, before Americans understood, and an American president would promise that the terrorists who did this to us would hear from all of us soon. Some of the bodies would never be fully recovered. Some families were only able to bury bone fragments.
After 9/11, nobody was talking about defunding the police, and firefighters held a newly heroic place in our hearts. Because evil was suddenly all around us. There were those who fought against it. Young men and women would line up at recruiting stations in the weeks to follow to help fight that evil. And were soon enough sent across the world to do so.
But the first counterattack happened before the military could be called up. Before we understood how many firefighters died in the towers. Before we knew that we were at war. Before some of us would admit this was a terrorist attack, and not just some coincidence of a series of accidents.
For the first counterattack happened when some Americans on cell phones contacted their families and found out that a hijacking wasn't in the cards, but a suicide mission. And they said, "Let's roll," and took down that missing airliner. Our first counterattack is memorialized in a field in Pennsylvania.
Someone once described the War on Terror as The Long War. No matter the current president's decisions over the last few months, or the previous president's decisions over the last few years, the bug-out in Afghanistan won't likely end the War on Terror.
The War in Afghanistan may be over, in Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean the enemy has left the field. And for him, the field is any place Americans live, work or play. The War on Terror cannot simply end because the Americans give up. If we'll just stop defending ourselves, won't the enemy stop killing us? Certainly. Eventually.
American isolationism is almost tradition. So is awakening from that isolationism.
Just as the unsatisfactory truce at the end of World War One led to World War Two, just as the missteps at the end of WWII in the Pacific Theater led to Korea and Vietnam, just as the untied loose ends and untethered peace at the end of the First Gulf War led to the perceived need to go back later, oh Lord, make it different this time. And may we have no need for a second Afghanistan War after an al-Qaida 2.0 targets these shores again.
Today there'll be a lot of prayers sent skyward. But that one might be the most popular. And the most needed.