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September 11, 2001: the day nothing changed

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.

Comments (21)

Jay Tea - you constantly as... (Below threshold)

Jay Tea - you constantly astound me with your erudition and thoughtful intelligence. This is just such an example. I am, to put it mildly, in awe!

I will be linking to this extraordinary post.

"Some folks even use it as ... (Below threshold)
Denny Crane:

"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."

Didn't 9/11 change the perception of a greater number of people that terrorism is not adequately addressed as a law enforcement concern? It seems to me there was a shift toward more premptive action, and a general public awareness, and even acceptance, of that.

"Those small changes had one effect, above all else: they brought the conflict right into our faces, too big to continue to ignore."

And that is a huge change. The mindless sheep of America seemed to stir awake and pay attention. Now some of us can find Afghanistan or Pakistan or Israel or Lebanon or Iran or Syria on a map. Now we're aware of jihad and martyrdom and bucketfulls of virgins.

While the existence of the tensions and struggle have not changed, the mindset of middle America has. I think that's big.

The changes in America have... (Below threshold)
John F Not Kerry:

The changes in America have been significant since 9/11, but not all have been good. We were finally woken from our slumber to realize that people wanted to kill us, but that accomplished two things, at least when the initial unity after the attacks faded.

On one hand, President Bush decided that, as a policy, it would be unacceptable to let threats against America exist without engagement of some sort. Whatever one would say about the wisdom or execution of this policy, he cannot be faulted for doing nothing.

On the other hand, we saw an even greater polarization in our political world. Former presidents, who as a custom were always reluctant to comment on their successors, stridently criticized Bush at home and abroad. Conspiracy theories abounded about whether Bush allowed or made 9/11 happen, and a pusher of such conspiracies was given a seat of honor at the 2004 Democrat National Convention, thereby implicitly endorsing what this "filmmaker" purported to show us.

It saddens me that at a time in history when we have the opportunity to significantly reduce the threats against our country, we have so little unity.

just as a summary... what D... (Below threshold)

just as a summary... what Denny said.

For all those years Terrorism was something that happened in far off lands. Yes, Americans might be involved, but this, for the first time, was foreign terrorists attacking in our homeland.

I know I'm more aware of the threat of terrorism. I'm more inclined to take action against suspicious behavior. I'm more thankful to those first responders and the members of our military for the job they do everyday, placing their lives in harms way to protect mine.

I also know that I have have to nearly disrobe to board an airplane. That I am subject to covert surveilance by my government in order to combat the threat from those who wish harm on our lifestyle and walk amongst us.

9/11 may not have changed the world, but I think it did change America.

Sir,as one of the Ma... (Below threshold)

as one of the Marines who was there in '79 I've always thought of that incident as the start of WWIV.
I also believe that thought the combination of his inaction, indecisiveness, and political fear, "Jimmah" Carter did more to encourage terrorism and fill the Islamofacist ranks than anything we did in Iraq.

Good article, but I disagre... (Below threshold)

Good article, but I disagree in one respect: no, the world didn't fundamentally change, and yes, the asymetric threat predates even Clinton.

What did change is a division between those that "get it" and those who don't. It's not a local political issue, it's not a law enforcement issue, and it's not something that will go away.

A second change was that the WOT was and is even now politicized by liberal politicians for tacky political gain (see today's comments by Jay Rockefeller and, even worse, the comments by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran at a memorial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery). Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Teddy Kennedy, Dick Durbin, Conyers, Boxer, Kerry, Gore and the rest of the out-of-power liberals will stoop to anything, say anything, and do anything to discredit President Bush in hopes of regaining control of the country. What they haven't figured out is what happens if their dreams of power come true. I continue to be amazed at how ethically bankrupt and crass they have become.

Add to that the incessant negativism by the popular media ever since 9/11, concocting one "conspiracy" after the other, arrogantly publishing leaked secret information from anonymous, unattributed "sources", stacking the deck on TV news and talk shows with careful guest selection and selective soundbytes, all to discredit Bush. And then they commission public opinion polls to trumpet poor ratings of the Bush Administration, poor opinions of US policy, and raging hatred in the middle east, ignoring their causative role in the whole mess. Do Americans distrust the Bush Administration? How much of it is the direct result of the media itself? And not just the Chris Matthews/Keith Olberman/Christiana Amanpour set. Throw in the New York Times, the LA Times, the Boston Globe, WaPo, and the news slicks like Time, Newsweak, US News, and it all adds up to a seditious GroupThink that is undermining our very role in world policy, and unashamedly turning our media into a liberal propaganda machine.

Add in Hollywood darlings like Alex Baldwin, Danny Glover, Barbra Streisand, and the rest of the great minds in Hollywood, and it's surprising that Mr. Bush didn't resign in disgust. Go back and reread the headlines for the past 6 years, and it's a pretty depressing picture.

As always, most Americans "get it", despite all these considerable efforts. They don't need to be told that the danger is real and serious. Most of us see past the Washington rhetoric, the "nattering nabobs of negativism" (there's a phrase from the past) in the press, and have learned to disrtrust "wisdom" from actors.

I only hope that we keep our heads on straight on the next two election days. Returning the Democrats to power would be the best thing that happened for the terrorists of the world and the worst thing that we can do as a nation.

I've been reflecting today,... (Below threshold)

I've been reflecting today, as I'm sure many have. It saddens me that there is so little unity in such a fabulous country. I am a liberal and so I have my perspective as do those of you on the right.

It seems so useless to me that we spend so much time and so much energy yelling at each other. I own my part of that. There is so much invested in finding "who" is at fault for this or that, neither side being very willing to look at the other's. We blame the president, some of you blame Clinton and others blame Carter. The truth is, it seems to me, that there is a collective responsibility for what happened. What's sad is that we can't work together to find the solution to all these problems. It's easy to find the villains (easy for me and easy for you) but I wish (foolishly suppose) that it was different.

How has it gotten this way? A rhetorical question that I hope no one answers.

Hugh,I agree. The... (Below threshold)


I agree. There is a collective responsibility. As to how things got this way...so visciously bi-artisan? I think there are a myriad of acceptable reasons, but the first that comes to mind is: fundamental differences in belief between parties that are exploited to gain political leverage by the extremeists of either party. It has polarizing effect on the rest of us.

For a shorter answer, Lee will tell you it's Bush's fault.

FormerHostage: Was on the w... (Below threshold)

FormerHostage: Was on the way to join you but had the normal stop off in Florida for Iranian familiarization school when the 'first major terrorists' attack occured on U.S. property. Everyone knew the inaction of Dimmy Carter would lead to ever increasing attacks. Now it has came to pass and we have thousands dead because he gave the terrorists the idea that America was a cowardly country. It appears that he was half right, half of the country would accept retreat, defeat and surrender and allow their familes to live as slaves or die for some idiot political idea. I won't mention who these people are but they will vote for Saddam or Osama if he has a 'D' after his name on a ballot.

The war between the Muslim ... (Below threshold)

The war between the Muslim nations and the United States has been ongoing since the birth of this nation. Lest we forget about the Barbry Pirates and the American merchant sailors that they captured and enslaved. It took the ships of the of a fledging United States Navy and a few dozen Marines to put a stop to the pirates. They were quiet for a couple of hundred years and they think that they can get away with that again, they have another think coming. You can thank the Nazis and the Soviets for this latest round of upheavel.

Jay Tea, I must disagree wh... (Below threshold)

Jay Tea, I must disagree wholeheartedly. The terrorists' war on America may have begun on November 4th, 1979 when those Iranian "students" stormed our embassy. But, America's war on terror began at about 10:15am September 11th, 2001 when the passengers of United Flight 93 stormed their highjackers.

You've illustrated in your post that there was no war on terror throughout the '80s and '90s.

"We'll make no distinction between those who commit these acts and those who harbor them." That's a huge shift in the mindset of the government and of the people generally.

I've gotta say this: Tunin... (Below threshold)
Denny Crane:

I've gotta say this: Tuning Spork is a GREAT handle! That cracks me up.

Heh. Thanks, Denny.<... (Below threshold)

Heh. Thanks, Denny.

Jay Tea,

Where'd you get the photo that you used for the 8:46am post? Do you have the video that it's taken from? Do you where I can download it? Google searches are turning up empty. Thanks!

"For a shorter answer, L... (Below threshold)

"For a shorter answer, Lee will tell you it's Bush's fault."

Actually, that's a lie.

I blame Bush for what is Bush's fault, but the large majority of blame for what has gone wrong in the last 6 years lies with the people who (1) voted for Bush, and (2) lie to defend and apologize for the horrendous job he's done.

The conservofascist movement in the United States is at the root of what is wrong with this country's government, and you can spot the fascists a mile away -- they're the ones who wrap themselves in the flag and claim that anyone who's opinion differs with theirs is a terrorist, or is "aiding and abetting" terrorism. This blog is full of commenters who fit that mold.

Their leadership sucks - Conservofascists lie and exaggerate about the dangers and threat of terrorism for political gain - so with leaders and role models like that, who can be surprised when asshats like heralder paint with the same broad brush, and lie right along with them.

What a suprise that they are now offering an olive branch to "unite the country" -- at a time when Americans are sick and tired of them running running our great country into the ground. At least conservofascists like Heralder has the convictions to stick to their guns and denegrate anyone who stands in the way of the conservofascist movement. If I hear one more whining republican saying "can't we all just get along?" I will puke.

Tuning, I intended this and... (Below threshold)

Tuning, I intended this and the previous piece to be complementary. Everything changed, nothing changed. It's the way the world works; it's seldom neat and tidy, and contradictions and paradoxes are far too common.

And I have to confess I didn't come up with any of the pictures. Kevin went in and added them, as well as doing some other minor tweaking. Today was, above all else, a team effort.


Aw gee, Lee, can't we all j... (Below threshold)

Aw gee, Lee, can't we all just get along?

(Hoping that reading it works just as well as hearing it.)

OK Lee. I won't ask you to... (Below threshold)

OK Lee. I won't ask you to get along. How about I ask you to piss off instead?
Wouldn't want to see you puke, but I hope to see you choke on the bile you bring to every thread you visit.

Another thing changed:... (Below threshold)
Denny Crane:

Another thing changed:

I grew up thinking the US was invincible. Period.

I remember trying a civil product liability case in Manhattan's civil court sometime in the mid-90's. Security was extra tight in the neighborhood, as someone was being tried for the 1993 bombing of the WTC in the nearby criminal court. Since I was an ultra-busy attorney based in Southern California, I didn't pay much attention to the bombing, and I didn't know the identity of the defendant. I mean, how important could it be? He must be one of a zillion crackpots who could never hurt America. After all, he failed like all the others. There would be more, and they would all fail. Or so I thought.

All that changed when I learned (1) there could be successful highjackings in the 2000's; (2) four could occur simultaneously; (3) the highjackers would sign on to a kamikaze mission, (4) they would target civilians, and (5) they could actually topple the towers.

Yeah, I guess I was pretty naive in all that. I was aware that terror happened elsewhere, but it just didnt' seem possible on that scale here. We were invincible. We were insular. There was no reason to think beyond that.

That changed. I woke up. I realized our vulnerabilities. More accurately, I was able to imagine our vulnerabilities before, because I often talked airport and other security to look the other way when I needed the rules to be bent for whatever urgent matters I was able to present--I mean I always got my way when it suited me--and I appreciated it. I frequently imagined that I could inflict evil if I wanted to, but I never really imagined such people existed outside TV and movies. I guess I could foresee such plots, but was too naive to think it would happen in real life. Therefore, it wouldn't happen.

That's kind of embarassing to admit now.

Now I know we're as vulnerable as I imagined--and I imagined a lot, because rules were always broken for me. Frankly, 9-11 doesn't even scratch the surface. I still get away with breaking rules in many ways, and they could be exploited by people with evil intent. I think we're safer now, but anybody with half a brain and no conscience could still inflict a lot of damage without much effort. I think it's human nature for people to bend rules in exchange for a compelling story, a nice smile, and honest eyes. That's been my experience, and it's scary.

Lee never disappoints, does... (Below threshold)

Lee never disappoints, does he?

Lee, stop feeding the alligator.

Bush turned a day of mourni... (Below threshold)

Bush turned a day of mourning into a cheap political event yesterday. Shameful.

Just days after the Republican controlled Senate reported that Saddam and Iraq had no links to Osama and Al Qaeda, Bush uses 9/11, and the nation's focus on it, in an attempt bolster support for his war in Iraq.

Where is the decency in that?

Lee.I said:... (Below threshold)


I said:

"For a shorter answer, Lee will tell you it's Bush's fault."

Lee replied:

Actually, that's a lie.

You may be sending mixed messages Lee. Can you explain how that's a lie when on September 1st, in relation to some particularly nasty posts from DU you said:

It is really tragic that the administration has split this country apart to the extent evident from this post. Didn't George promise to bridge the gap and bring America together again? Chalk up another failure for the republican'ts....

I'm a little embarrassed for you Lee, it's sometimes so painful to watch you try and take your foot out of your mouth.

In relation to your name calling...if you're going to call someone a "conservofascist" or the like, at least be accurate. You labelled me that after I wrote a very moderate post.

To avoid further jackassery, Lee, say what you mean and mean what you say.






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