An Online Symposium on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11
Published in Center for Security Policy
The Center for Security Policy asked this question of thirty writers. For the full range of responses, click here. Mine follows below.
In order to decide whether we are safer today, a decade after the events of 9/11, we must first establish who “we” are.
If “we” means the immediate us, you and me, this particular generation, then the situation is slightly improved: Osama bin Laden, who came to personify al-Qaeda, is dead, as are other reportedly high level terrorists. According to White House counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, al-Qaeda is “On a steady slide. On the ropes. Taking shots to the body and head.”
Conversely, if “we” means Western civilization, including future generations, then the situation is dire, gone from bad to worse. The fact is, from a macro perspective, even if al-Qaeda were totally eradicated tomorrow, the threat to the West would hardly recede, for al-Qaeda was never the source of the threat, but simply one of its multitudinous manifestations (other threats include the stealth jihad to overthrow Western civilization from within).
Even the Obama administration is inadvertently beginning to acknowledge the existential nature of the conflict (though of course without articulating it as such): it recently declared that lone wolf terrorists—jihadists who have no connection to al-Qaeda other than that they share the same Islamist-inspired worldview, people like the Fort Hood jihadist, the Christmas Day Bomber, the Shoe Bomber, ad infinitum—are a greater threat than al-Qaeda. That is, jihad metastasized.
To better appreciate the “big picture,” consider how at the turn of the 20th century, the Islamic world was rushing to emulate the victorious and confident West—best exemplified by the Ottoman empire itself, the preserver and enforcer of Islam, rejecting its Muslim past and trying to modernize. Today, 100 years later, the Muslim world has largely rejected secularism and is reclaiming its Islamic—including jihadist—heritage, lashing out in a manifold of ways.
Likewise, consider how many Islamist leaders, organizations, and terrorists have come and gone in the 20thcentury alone—many killed like bin Laden—only for Islam to grow more hostile towards the non-Muslim West than at any time in the modern era.
It is in this context that the overall significance of eliminating this or that terrorist or organization must be understood.
In short, we need to get beyond obsessing over names and faces—al-Qaeda and bin Laden, for example—and begin focusing on the ideas and motivations that create them—that is, if “we” encompasses more than this generation.