Fifteen years after one of the most vivid and violent days in American history, there is still a debate over what the events of Sept. 11, 2001, actually mean.
For some individuals, it is clear enough. They experience horrible, continuing and unrecoverable loss — the immense absence of friends and family chosen for death at random or led there by duty.
But the place of these events in our national life remains disputed in a way that, say, Pearl Harbor was not. No one accused President Franklin Roosevelt of overreacting to the Imperial Japanese threat. This charge, however, is routinely made in assessing the war against terrorism — that America overreacted in the surveillance of citizens; in the pursuit, interrogation and killing of enemy combatants; and in the use of the military to confront emerging threats. After the killing of Osama bin Laden in particular, some in the Obama administration seemed to regard the threat of terrorism as diminished, contained and manageable.
This viewpoint — while offering important corrections — has become dramatically less credible with the collapse of sovereignty at the heart of the Middle East; with ongoing mass atrocities against civilians in Syria; with a refugee crisis that incubates resentment and now shakes the foundations of the European Union; and with the establishment of a physical place — a quasi-state — that claims to be the Islamic caliphate.
The second largest city in Iraq has been controlled by a terrorist organization for more than two years. And the existence of this faux caliphate, according to security expert Juan Zarate, has “rejuvenated (terror) networks in Europe, in Southeast Asia, in the Middle East and elsewhere that were previously suppressed.”
Clearly, national passivity — as a matter of conviction or indecision — can also invite serious strategic and moral challenges.
Yet this argument against inaction is becoming dated in some respects. President Barack Obama has returned military advisers to Iraq and slowly escalated America’s commitment to the defeat of the Islamic State. (There are several thousand U.S. troops now in Iraq and Syria). Progress is being made in significant increments. Obama is attempting to shape an American role that offers intelligence, coordination and air power while building up the capabilities of allies and proxies. The effort has been limited and late — perhaps too late in Syria — but developing this sort of capacity is the correct goal dictated by the correct question: How does America exercise maximum military influence without the risks of invasion and occupation?
And the Obama administration has devoted increasing, useful attention to the ideological battle against Islamic extremism. In one respect, the propaganda produced by the Islamic State has a narrow goal — produce volunteers to fight for, operate and populate its sad excuse for a caliphate. The effort, at its height, produced perhaps 40,000 foreign recruits. As the chances of dying on terrorist vacation have increased, recruitment has slowed. And efforts to counter Islamic State propaganda have skillfully employed defectors who describe menial work, desperate conditions and disappointed expectations.
One response by the Islamic State to military reverses has been to call for terrorist attacks in place — claiming that Muslims can demonstrate their fidelity by shooting up a local nightclub or running a truck into a crowd. This approach is not new. But the Islamic State, according to Zarate, has made it “a core part of their strategy.”
In some ways, fighting a geographic caliphate is the kind of thing American does best, applying deadly force with great precision. But disputes about theology and identity are unfamiliar terrain for the American government. Violent Islamists don’t require mass appeal. They set out, via social media and the deep web, to exploit the angry, damaged and vulnerable. Identifying the radicalized involves attention to individuals by family members, peers and imams. And it requires an atmosphere of trust between the FBI and the Muslim community.
In this context, the argument by the Republican presidential nominee that America is too engaged in the world and too soft on Islam is utterly, dangerously wrong on both counts. When he proposes a religious test at the border, or demonizes Muslim refugees, or calls for the murder of the families of terrorists, he feeds social division, alienates important allies, materially complicates the war on terrorism and puts our country at additional risk.
Fifteen years on from 9/11, the main task remains the ideological and religious isolation of the enemy — placing them on an island of unholy cruelty. A war of civilizations — the war they want — will not be won.