I had thought to post about my memories of 9/11, my feelings as I watched it unfold live on television that horrific day, but more eloquent writers have done it better. so I thought instead that I would write of lessons that need remembering. I don’t quite hold with Santayana's quote about those who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it, but I do believe that those who don’t learn from history will face preventable tragedy.
For example, we had plenty of chances to learn that terrorism cannot be treated as ordinary crime. We could have learned that from the Munich Olympics, or the failure of Israeli police to stop their bombings, or from our own experiences with embassy bombings and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing... but we didn’t. When our nation was founded, in the days when a musket got off one round every thirty seconds, one could merely react to crime- but today that’s not good enough; we have to stop them before they strike. One can well argue about the exact provisions of the Patriot Act, but something like it had to be passed; we are way beyond the stage where it’s possible to have intelligence and law enforcement agencies forbidden by law to talk to each other, as they were before 9/11. Complaining about warrantless wiretaps is all well and good- but having the ability to place an overseas call to Osama Bin Laden without being intercepted is not liberty but insanity.
There is an old military aphorism that any resolution short of total victory is a defeat. That lesson is well proven by the killing fields of Southeast Asia, and our current troubles with North Korea, and our current predicament in Iraq is a direct result of Bush the elder forgetting that lesson. Maybe it was politically impossible for him to overthrow Hussein in the first gulf war as claimed, but at the end of WW II we were able to leave the Emperor of Japan in place without leaving a dangerously militaristic government behind as a threat- a way could and should have been found to do the same in Iraq while we had the good will of governments in the Middle East.
Another military aphorism is that absolute, overwhelming force is just barely enough; anything less than a total effort wastes men and material even if you win. Had Bush the younger remembered that lesson, all of his other mistakes in Iraq would have been meaningless. A soldier on every street corner, and non-stop reconnaissance and strike sorties would have closed the border and stopped the flow of men and equipment that are now fueling the insurgency. One must either fight a war or not fight a war- never half-fight it! Any leader who fears cries of “disproportionate response” at the expense of lives- both ours and theirs- is unworthy of leading.
One lesson we, as a people, must learn is to finish what we start; the losses in the long run are often higher for quitting than for continuing. Osama Bin Laden himself said that the reason for the 9/11 strike was that since we had cut our losses and run from Somalia, he believed a really big strike would make us run from the whole of the Middle East. There is precedent for this: we know from captured records that the reason for the Pearl Harbor strike was that Japanese military leaders believed that because of our foreign policy record and level of political rhetoric in the 1930’s that we were afraid of war- one debilitating strike and we would be too cowed to enter the war. Even if no future dictator or terrorist attacks because he believes us too weak willed for a long fight, what about our own future Presidents? What if the next President is afraid to go into Darfur because he or she believes that if it turns nasty, we haven’t the will to continue?
Other lessons have been learned. One of President Bush’s few laudable actions was to say early and often that Islam as a religion was not to blame; this helped defuse the xenophobia that normally accompanies a war. There has been no wave of anti-Islam hysteria; those attacks that have occurred are no greater in number than “ordinary” hate crime- in fact, in the last six years more Christian churches have been burned than mosques attacked. When I heard a man I knew who forty years ago called anyone of even vaguely Asiatic appearance “gook” differentiate between “regular Muslims” and terrorists, I smiled.
Another lesson learned is that we, as a people, can no longer go about our business and allow the government to run things unsupervised. I believe that a lot of the viciousness of politics today stems from deep feelings of guilt, that we allowed things to get to this state. My hope is that in future, the tone of political blogs and organizations will moderate as participation increases.