It has been thirteen years since the horror of September 11th, 2001, and despite two wars, thousands of lives lost, two presidential administrations, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the expansion of our intelligence sector, increased security precautions in our transportation industries, and the continued violations of the Fourth Amendment rights of US citizens through phone tapping and violations of internet privacy, the story of the day for cable news stations continues to be the looming question of whether the enemy will strike again and just how afraid the American people should be. Poll numbers continue to show that roughly half of Americans believe that the US is in grater danger today than at the start of this administration. It is a tragedy of historic proportions and a bipartisan failure by those who have been elected to protect us. The United States exists in a state of perennial fear because our leaders—Republican and Democrat, civilian and military—long ago succumbed to the idea that the future of American security rests not in destroying the enemy where he lives but in restricting our own freedoms in the name of a marginally greater feeling of safety. So long as we continue down this path, the enemies of the United States will endure and grow bolder. The key to victory is in relinquishing the homeland security model and adopting truly forward strategy for victory.
In the Peloponnesian War, when the ancient city-state of Athens was attacked by the militant, bloodthirsty, and proto-fascistic army of neighboring Sparta, they were led by the statesman Pericles to a strategy that should sound eerily familiar to observers of American military policy today. Pericles advised those who lived along the outskirts of Athens to leave their homes and their farms to be burned by the ravaging Spartan army, to retreat within the walls of Athens, and to watch from the city walls as their property was destroyed. What’s more: Pericles encouraged them to treat this as an act of boldness and defiance, to show the invading Spartan army that they fought for something greater than their material possessions, and that so long as they were alive and safe within the city walls they would not consider themselves defeated, even as their world burned around them.
While today’s policy is not one of allowing the enemy to physically invade our homeland and destroy our property entirely unanswered, it is, in another sense, to allow the presence of the enemy and the threat of his wrath to wall us up in fear and paranoia and to rob us of our rights to privacy and the feeling of safety just as the Athenians were robbed of their homes and their property. It is to accept heavy-handed and indiscriminate infringements upon our own lives in the name of treading lightly on the enemy’s turf for fear of offending international sensibilities and the rights of foreign peoples to national self-determination even when it manifests as a determination to kill us and end our way of life. The added security measures in our transportation industries and the Department of Homeland Security are walls within which we hide from the threats that we have not resolved to destroy. Walls, however, do not hold forever, and a culture with the radiant self-esteem of the United States is not meant to be sequestered behind fortifications.
Sadly, the cycle of fear will not end until the threat is eliminated. Scholars in recent years have said much about the declining threat of Al-Qaeda. Those such as Fawaz Gerges have asked important questions about whether that organization was ever the threat it was portrayed to be after its climax thirteen years ago today. But if the last year has shown us anything about Islamic militancy, it has reiterated that any rational approach to fighting it must go beyond targeting such amorphous, stateless institutions and recognize that the threat to be eliminated is not Al-Qaeda nor “terrorism”, but Islamic totalitarianism as such. It is that ideology and not any specific organization that sees the West in general and the United States in particular as evil and worthy of destruction. To fight it otherwise is to take on a Hydra and to watch as a new head emerges where each is severed.
Once the enemy is recognized, the task that is incumbent upon our military and civilian leaders is to destroy it—not the particular organization at hand, but the ideology as such. Ideologies are what drive individuals to join such groups and impel those groups in campaigns of murderous hatred and violence. Ideologies are what must be discredited and rendered utterly hopeless in order to achieve victory over their adherents. The only feat that will accomplish this task and render an enduring, stable, and—for Americans and residents of the Middle East alike—profitable peace is the total, unconditional surrender of Islamist militants wherever they exist. As historian John David Lewis said, “A defending nation, a good nation, must project its power beyond its own borders.” The practitioners of Islamic totalitarianism must be so thoroughly defeated as to make the prospect of ever taking up arms in the name of that ideology again look like deliberate suicide. Nothing less will suffice.
When that task is accomplished successfully—and only then—the US can regain a sense of normalcy, security, and stability. To do so, however, it must regain a moral conviction: the belief in the right of its own citizens to that peace and the prerogative of its government to annihilate with extreme prejudice and a moral pride those who seek to harm them. Americans must disabuse themselves of the idea that our current model for security and the sacrifice of privacy that it entails is simply the “new normal” and in any way an acceptable approach to national defense. It is a perversion made possible by our political leaders’ unwillingness to defeat the enemy for fear of being thought cruel and violent, and their eagerness to spread democracy and rights to the people of attacking countries while restricting our own at home.
The homeland defense is not the proper response to threats to American security. To the contrary, despite the pride and assertiveness in the voices of Presidents Bush and Obama in defending such approaches, it is an act of retreat—strategically and morally. When that retreat is reversed and the enemy is both recognized and properly asserted, the United States can regain its former confidence and security. Perhaps then we will be able to turn on the news and be reminded of those who lost their lives thirteen years ago, to meet their memory with the knowledge that such horrors need never come again, and to mark this day each year with reverence, with honor, and not with fear.