To put today’s 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in perspective, when the same time had elapsed since Pearl Harbor, it was 1960. World War II was long over and its veterans were, for the most part, entering middle age. The nation had turned its attention to the Cold War and the perceived threat from the Soviet Union, which had been the nation’s ally in that earlier conflict.
By contrast, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, still seem recent. American soldiers still have a presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Air travelers still must remove shoes, belts and other items as part of the close inspection required before boarding commercial aircraft.
In his speech to Congressand the nation on Sept. 20, 2001, President George W. Bush said the war on terrorism would not be like previous wars. “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen,” he said. “It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.”
Above all, it would take patience and resolve, two character traits still in demand.
For the most part, the nation has responded to Bush’s call. Years later, President Barack Obama directed the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of those attacks. U.S. forces have relentlessly sought and attacked leaders of al-Qaida and other related terrorist groups. That is continuing under President Donald Trump.
Most remarkably, terrorists have been unsuccessful in attacking the United States again in such a dramatic and deadly manner. Last year’s killing of three U.S. servicemen at Naval Air Station Pensacola was a rare example of a successful terrorist strike, and it was a stark reminder of the threats still posed by those in league with the 9/11 attackers.
Writing in The Washington Postthis week, Christopher Mille, director of the National Counterterrorism Center in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said the U.S. has mostly succeeded in its aims.
“My assessment now is that al-Qaida is in crisis,” he wrote. “The group’s leadership has been severely diminished by U.S. attacks. Its sole remaining ideological leader is Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy on 9/11, who lives in hiding, no doubt fully aware of his vulnerability.”
But the struggle must continue.
This year’s anniversary is different from previous ones. A worldwide pandemic, widespread protests and unrest in the streets dominate the nation’s attention. The nation seems to have placed the war on terror on a back burner.
But Americans can never afford to forget those who died that day, or the heroes — on United Airlines Flight 93 who thwarted a third attack, and among firefighters who sacrificed their own safety to help others — who exemplified the best of what it means to be an American.
Americans also can’t afford to forget the awful price of being unprepared.
The war on terror has been long and tragic. A Brown University study said at least 37 million people worldwide have been displaced and forced to flee their homes, not all because of U.S. military action. Thousands of U.S. soldiers have died in conflicts brought on by 9/11.
It may not end anytime soon. “Terror” is not definable as a single enemy. It is a strategy, and it can be employed by any enemy of the United States that wants to appear more powerful and frightening than it really is.
On this anniversary, the nation should renew its resolve, even as it honors those who fell 19 years ago, and in all the years since.