One common theme these days is that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 changed the world. Some folks even use it as a shorthand in political arguments: I’ve heard the phrase “September 10th thinking” used to denigrate those who don’t take the War on Terror as seriously as others.
But from a historical perspective, it can be argued that nothing really changed on that day. Fundamental realities were already in place, and there was nothing new about the attacks. The only things that were different were the geography and the magnitude.
The War on Terror did not begin on September 11, 2001. I’ve discussed it several times, and there are numerous incidents that one can point to and say “that is when the War on Terror began.” I, personally, favor November 4, 1979 — the day the Iranians seized the American embassy in Tehran and took 66 American citizens hostage. That was the first time that Muslim extremists committed an overt act of war against the United States, and we did not retaliate. It established a precedent, and set in place a pattern that would only be reinforced by future presidents — Reagan in Beirut in 1983, Clinton in Mogadishu in 1993,Clinton in 1996 in Saudi Arabia, Clinton in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Clinton in Yemen in 2000.
The Islamist movement against the West is not some monolithic threat like the Soviet Union. Our enemies are legion, and they constantly shift their members and identities. Up until 9/11, the single terrorist organization that had killed the most Americans was Hezbollah, while other groups — Hamas, Fatah/the PLO, Islamic Jihad, and so on — had their own body counts.
We are at war with a movement. Call it Terrorism, call it Militant Islam, call it Islamic Fascism, they are all different tentacles of the same beast. Or, perhaps, weeds might be a better term. Focus on one, another will take the opportunity to strike. The war did not begin on 9/11, or with the first Al Qaeda attack. Osama Bin Laden is not the Hitler of the terrorist movement. He is the most prominent figurehead of the faction that has had the greatest singular success — and suffered the greatest reprisals. If he were to be captured today, it would be a great thing — but in the big picture, it would not change anything at all.
As I watched “The Path To 9/11” last night, it occurred to me that while it is fair to look at the mistakes the Clinton administration made in not doing all it could to get Bin Laden when it had numerous opportunities, it most likely would have made very little difference. The big attack on America was coming. If Bin Laden had been killed, we instead might speak with reverence about “10/24” or “The Christmas massacre” or “May Day for America.” We would give praise to the veterans of the Lebanon War or the Battle of Tripoli or have reporters broadcasting from Occupied Damascus or discussing Tehran’s Green Zone.
It was coming. It might have been inevitable. But the fact that it was Osama Bin Laden, and Al Qaeda, is largely irrelevant. To focus on them to the exclusion of the rest of the threat is foolhardy.
The world did not change on September 11, 2001. All that changed was geography and magnitude. There had been terrorist attacks before, and have been since. But never had one happened here, on that scale.
Those small changes had one effect, above all else: they brought the conflict right into our faces, too big to continue to ignore. Sometimes, when you try to avoid a fight, the fight ends up finding you — and you have to face it at the time and place not of your choosing.
Yes, there have been terrorist attacks since 9/11. Even here, within the United States. And there will be more. But stopping the fight will not guarantee our safety. We tried that, in the 1990’s, when we moderated our response in hopes of inspiring moderation from our enemies. Instead, it brought about escalation, culminating on one bright, sunny morning, five years ago today.