The atrocities of Sept. 11, two years ago today, revealed a truth that only a few thousand terrorists and government officials fully understood: The West, in particular the United States, had been at war for years.
It was a one-sided, mainly invisible war, hidden by the obsessive secrecy of intelligence agencies, the unwillingness of politicians and journalists to take seriously the insane-sounding threats of terrorists, and the reluctance of people everywhere to deal with grim, life-changing news.
Sept. 11 broke through those clouds of obscurity and revealed the reality behind them. A war was under way, and no one on the planet would entirely escape its effects.
The CIA had known for a long time. In December, 1998, the director, George Tenet, wrote in a secret memo: "We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort...." In 1999, President Clinton signed a secret document acknowledging that a statement made by Osama bin Laden was effectively a declaration of war on the U.S.
When Tenet said he wanted no resources spared, he meant professional intelligence resources. He didn't mean he wanted the help of the public. In fact, he didn't even inform his fellow Washington bureaucrats. He was aware bin Laden hoped to make a major attack on the U.S., and that aircraft might be used as bombs. Robert S. Mueller, the FBI director, looking back on Sept. 11 during a congressional inquiry, said that perhaps the U.S. could have "looked at changing the way we protect our planes," such as security cockpit doors.
But neither Tenet nor Mueller wanted to make a fuss. They believed, as intelligence bureaucrats, that they could best handle matters in private. So Sept. 11 came as a blinding revelation to people who did not know the goals of radical Islam, considered terrorism a marginal phenomenon, and could not imagine that anyone would inflict 2,823 deaths on New York and then bray with triumph.
Once aroused, however, the public demanded justice and hoped for victory. George W. Bush was quick to delineate the terms, delivering to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, what may eventually be considered the most arresting statement of his presidency: "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."
He made it clear that this tragedy had become his generation's test of will.
His popularity swelled, though there were those who questioned his motives and doubted that his goals could be accomplished. Regiments of opinion mongers informed the Pentagon it couldn't defeat Afghanistan without a long, bloody struggle, and, after being proved wrong, said the same about Iraq. However mistaken these predictions were, there was enough post-war trouble in both countries to delight Bush's and America's enemies.
Many believe, as Gwynne Dyer typically wrote in the Toronto Star yesterday, that Bush "pumps up the terrorist threat to distract attention from the economy and provide a pretext for some other actions." Dyer noted that there have been relatively few terrorist acts since 2001 except in "local conflicts" such as in India, Russia and Israel. Because fewer than 50 Americans have been killed over two years, he suspects the whole business was a flash in the pan. It doesn't occur to him the decline in attacks on Americans could be explained by their furious determination to take the war into the enemy's camp and destroy al-Qaeda.
Canada has developed its own independent strategy for this war: Help a bit, lay low, hope things will work out for the best and criticize the Americans whenever possible while co-operating with their security plans when absolutely necessary. Having lost our military strength through decades of cost-cutting and our political significance through a persistent refusal to face reality, we have placed ourselves outside the great struggle of this epoch. Our government finds this the most expedient course, and many Canadians, possibly even a majority, like it that way. We have chosen to be spectators rather than participants in history.
The Australians, by contrast, have joined the battle. Today they are closer diplomatically to the United States than we are -- partly because they are geographically so much farther away. Unlike us, they have not spent decades depending for protection on the strength of a powerful neighbour. They understand (as we do not) that terrorism matters as much to them as to the United States.
In retrospect, Ronald Reagan made a tragic error in 1984 when he withdrew U.S. forces from Lebanon. On Oct. 23, 1983, a Syrian-directed suicide killer drove a truck into the Marine barracks at Beirut airport, detonating tons of explosives and killing 241 Marines, sailors and soldiers. Was that the beginning of the war? It was a terrorist state's massive attack on the Americans, a signal that the U.S. presence in the region would not be tolerated. It was surely a call to arms.
Instead, Congress pressured Reagan to leave Lebanon. He resisted, believing withdrawal would give Syria a victory and be "the end of Lebanon." But in early February he gave in. "Yielding to violence and terrorism today may seem to provide temporary relief," he said, "but such a course is sure to lead to a more dangerous and less manageable future crisis." Even so, he yielded. His decision to leave Lebanon made the suicide bombing a success and turned the country over to Syria. Ever since, Lebanon has been Syria's morose satellite.
As Fouad Ajami wrote recently, Reagan's withdrawal left the impression that "America is easily discouraged, that a band of plotters could dissuade us from larger goals." Jihadist killers in Iraq today believe they, too, can send the Americans home. They know that in the past, the Americans were slow to anger and tolerated many more bombs after Beirut.
The jihadists apparently believe the effects of Sept. 11 are wearing off and soon the United States will go back to sleep. It's always possible they're right, but it seems more likely that Sept. 11 burned so deeply into the national imagination that Americans will never again think about terrorists with anything less than vengeful fury.