Ten years ago, America endured the most malevolent and savage attack in its history. Yet even here in Washington, site of one of the attacks, for the fortunate vast majority, 9/11 is a memory—rising on its anniversary, then receding again. However, on this the 10-year mark, we seek to bring the memory back more fully, to find greater meaning in it and the past decade. Hard as it is, we must do so, not just because of its horror and loss, but for the resilience of the American will and ideal it still represents.
It is easy to fall prey to the pervasive relativism of liberal political correctness and ask ourselves whether indeed we have been winning, or ever can win, the fight against terrorism. The September 11 attack was a dual assault: against individual Americans and America at large. How can we hope to defeat such a comprehensive threat?
We could simply say this: We have. Thanks to the dedication of our troops abroad and our homeland defenders, this war on terrorism has not been a stalemate. While the first blow was struck here, the battles since have largely and successfully been fought on the terrorists’ terrain. Evidence of our success lies in the fact that, for the most part, 9/11 is more a collective memory than a haunting fact of daily life for the average American.
Precautions certainly continue, but mostly they are inconveniences to those of us who encounter them at all—which would not be the case if terror attacks were a regular occurrence. On the other side, the terrorists still have nothing to offer their recruits but participation in senseless destruction, and only the most disaffected sign on.
In 10 years, we have learned so much about terrorism, but still understand it so little. So rather than, as we would wish, making the declarative statement, “Never again,” we find ourselves haunted by it as a question: “Never again?”
Here in Washington, we do not have to look back 10 years to remember what Sept. 11, 2001, felt like. Just weeks ago, we had an eerie and vivid reminder.
An unprecedented earthquake provided a surreal parallel. Not quite as other-worldly as a plane flying into the Pentagon, but such things do not happen here. People spilling into the street with emotions too reminiscent of those a decade ago. We worried about loved ones, and what would come next.
Yet the differences between the two events are far bigger than the superficial similarities.
The contrast in their content—9/11’s targeted malevolence—is the true distinction. We were never an earthquake’s targets. The United States, and all Americans, were targeted on that day 10 years ago. It still rightly shocks us—and therein lies the fullest proof of our triumph over it.
We have fought a war on terrorism without losing ourselves in the process. We will be fighting it for some time, but not necessarily forever. Other totalitarian visions (and the 9/11 terrorists’ aim assuredly was that) have risen only to fall. Nazism and communism raised far larger edifices than the terrorists have, only to see them crumble. We suffered losses in our struggle against them too, but nevertheless we won in the end.
It is a given that we remember September 11, but it’s more important that we recognize it, not just for its terror and depravity, but for the enormous good it brought about in us. We must force ourselves to recall the apocalyptic event and see it beyond its surface scars.
Most of all, we should remind ourselves that America has been fighting the good fight since long before 9/11. And winning it. Throughout this perpetual struggle, we the people have faithfully preserved what is most precious in ourselves and our society.
September 11 is but one part of a long struggle, one that continues to be a testament to our humanity and our ideals. While 9/11 seems apocalyptic in our history, it is neither the first nor the last chapter in America’s fundamental story. Our nation exists because Americans had a vision. They believed that there should be one place on Earth premised on the ideal that every person should be allowed to rise to his or her fullest potential.
Hostility to that vision is the reason that we have been the repeated target of aggression. And why we were the target 10 years ago. Our triumph has not come from being unscathed—then, or even in the future—but in refusing to fall, either as Americans or as America, from our vision. That is 9/11’s deeper message. And it is indeed one we must never forget.