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The Eighteen-Year Wound

Today marks the eighteenth anniversary of the 9/11/01 attacks, probably the most significant event to “hit” this country in the new century. Most citizens old enough will compare it to Pearl Harbor, and those who don’t, should. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called that day, December 7, 1941, as one that “will live in infamy,” and indeed it has in the collective American memory. But what comparisons can we make to that historic event, which made the next day, December 8, certainly the most unified moment in U.S. history? Can anyone say that 9/11 has lived in “infamy”? Are we still unified as we were 78 years ago?

The answer to those questions is both obvious and easy. Yesterday, September 10, 2019, the Washington Times ran a headline that said, “Taliban militants fight way back to strength of 9/11.” The story began by noting how the Afghan terrorists “are now stronger than at any other point in the post- 9/11 era, say military observers…” President Trump immediately canceled any future talks with the Taliban, declaring all communications “dead.” Turn the page, and we get an essay by respected columnist Cal Thomas that begins by stating that “a premature pullout from Afghanistan will fulfill bin Laden’s prophesy.”

Premature?? Eighteen years later and … “premature” ?? Don’t blame Thomas, as we all have been used to the ups and downs of a “war” that already is longer than any other single contest in American history. The Revolution took seven years of combat, the War of 1812 two, the Civil War four, the Spanish War a few months, World War I a half-year (May to November 1918), World War II four, Korea three, and Vietnam, that we once thought much too long, thirteen (1959 to 1972).

Just imagine: post-Pearl Harbor, 1960, a headline screams “Japanese continue to bomb the Philippines.” FDR would have died fifteen years ago and the American people go on as usual? Don’t think so!

Fiction may be stranger than truth, but comparisons can be relevant. What else can we do? Apparently, the enemy terrorists are not bothered by long wars. A Taliban spokesman is quoted as saying, “We will fight. We have fought for 18 years and we will fight for a hundred years. We will continue our jihad.”

In 2002, Derek Leebaert published his seminal book, The Fifty-Year Wound, an account of how the United States waged and won the near-half century Cold War and how that experience changed the composition of the culture and worldview of the country, its leadership, and people. Leebaert was not sparring in his use of the word “wound,” noting how the U.S. went, nearly overnight, from a tranquil and isolated nation of the Western Hemisphere to a global “superpower,” with about 800 military facilities overseas (many of them “bases”) and a domestic society dependent upon what President Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex.”

But we prevailed, and then 9/11 happened. What has been the experience since? Is that date one that has lived “in infamy”?

One measure of its impact can be attributed to one of the most bizarre statements ever attributed to a Member of Congress. In March of this year, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) gave a speech to a Muslim group (Center for Arab Islamic Relations, CAIR) referring to 9/11 as “some people did something.” Of course, she was roundly condemned for one of the most flippant statements imaginable for the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocents. But the sheer audacity of the statement, and coming from an elected official, is testimony to the long-term aftermath of this century’s most flagrant violation of American life. Could one ever imagine a similar comment on Pearl Harbor? Would any American make the same reference to any tragedy, anywhere, against anyone? Would any sane person call John Kennedy’s assassination “someone did something”? This comment is representative of the distance this country has gone from the 9/11 attacks.

Viewing the recent Democratic primary debates, one is immediately struck by the near-total lack of interest in any national security issues. The composition of the issues brought up are almost completely personalities, age, or whether the economy should remain capitalist or become socialist. One searches in vain for any comment at all on the legacy of 9/11, terrorism in general, or any issues relating to America’s position in the world order. Indeed, the last statement on “world order” came with H. W. Bush in 1990, but seems to have been (characteristically) forgotten the next day.

It’s been downhill since, with or without 9/11. Compare this to the apparent resolve of the global “Jihadists.”

It’s painful to write this, but the outlook for America in the world is not positive. We need a Churchill or a Roosevelt (either Roosevelt will do). The “tunnel” is long and dark and the glimmer of light is indeed faint.

But I would love to be proven wrong.