We’ve all revisited 9/11/2001 this week, to remember what happened that day, and recall how we felt afterwards. We’ve heard the word tragedy a lot, and we’ve tried to remember the deeds of heroism and compassion that occurred that day. Let’s not forget another side of 9/11, though, a side that calls forth a different frame of mind. 9/11 was an act of war.
We all knew it then; we know it now. Our enemies managed to inflict an attack much more damaging and nearby than any that preceded it. Yet we talk about it as a tragedy. Well, it was a tragedy for us: we suffered much destruction and loss from those attacks. We want to remember though that the other side doesn’t see 9/11 as a tragedy. The other side sees it as a victory. The Japanese see Hiroshima and Nagasaki as tragedies, but we don’t see those attacks through the same lens. For us they mark the end of a victorious war.
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we didn’t ask, “Why do they hate us so?” They had already given us plenty of reason to respect and fear them through the 1930s, as their empire expanded in the Western Pacific. Similarly, Al Qaeda conducted attacks of sufficient boldness during the 1990s that we could recognize them as a determined foe. 9/11 differed in scale but not in kind from the earlier attacks.
We didn’t wonder why the Japanese hated us. We wondered about how to destroy their military power. We didn’t think about how to make them hate us less. We thought about how to disarm them permanently, so they could not attack us again. The reason the Japanese attacked us in the first place was obvious. The United States was the only power in the Western Pacific that prevented the Japanese from exercising complete hegemony in that part of the world.
Our emotional response to the 9/11 attacks became less ruthless than our response to Pearl Harbor. Our compassionate, and I have to say, feminine side said, “If only we can learn why they hate us, we can do something to overcome the sources of their hate, and we can have peace again. Do they envy our wealth? We can share it. Do our young enemies have hope for a free, prosperous future? We can give them hope. Do they object to bad things we’ve done? We can stop doing bad things.”
We don’t need to wonder why Al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11. They told us many times before and after 9/11 why we had earned their enmity. Al Qaeda makes war on us because we back Israel. Al Qaeda wants to destroy Israel. Consequently it tries to destroy the single power that, according to its own estimation, protects Israel and keeps it alive. In Al Qaeda’s worldview, Arabs can kill the child only if it can force the parent to renounce its protection. If Al Qaeda, acting for all Arabs, can make the United States end its alliance with Israel, Israel itself could not withstand the combined pressure of all its Arab opponents.
We can’t seem to grasp that Al Qaeda tells the truth in this case. When its leaders explain in their videotapes what they want to accomplish, and why, we should believe them. The reasons for their war on the United States are not obscure, puzzling, or difficult to fathom. The reasons lie right in front of us. As a result, we have only three options to end our conflict with Al Qaeda and other militant Islamic groups: end our alliance with Israel, suffer defeat, or destroy Al Qaeda’s ability to do us harm.
We think that a preventive war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq will do the trick. We think that a stable, friendly government in Kabul, together with a strong, stable regime in Islamabad will remove Al Qaeda’s so-called safe havens. We think that if we can somehow placate or buy off our enemies in the midst of all these wars, things will turn in our favor and we won’t have to feel anxious about more attacks.
These are manifestly unproductive ways to conduct a difficult war. Muddled thinking about why our enemies hate us leads to disordered plans and feckless execution. We have to acknowledge that while we maintain our alliance with Israel, our conflict with Al Qaeda is irresolvable. Al Qaeda says that, and we have no reason to disbelieve them. Since we do not plan to end our alliance with Israel, we have two options: suffer defeat or disarm Al Qaeda.
I do not think we should end our alliance with Israel, and I cannot think of any friendly or neutral party in this conflict who thinks that we should. Al Qaeda says that our alliance with Israel constitutes the root cause of its attacks on us. If we believe them, we have to conclude that we must prosecute our conflict with Al Qaeda until one party gives up the fight.
We are in a thicket of other troubles right now. The range of our responsibilities and difficulties requires of us clear thinking about why 9/11 occurred. If we don’t recognize the reason for the war, we certainly can’t win it. We only have to listen to our enemies to know why we fight them. If we don’t listen to our enemies, and respond directly, we’ll lose track of what we have to do. In that case, we’ll never emerge from the thicket.