Two terrible September days sum up the first decade of the new American millennium. The first, of course, was Sept. 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden’s suicide terrorists that morning hit the Pentagon, knocked down the World Trade Center, killed almost 3,000 Americans and left 16 acres of ash in Manhattan and $1 trillion in economic losses in their wake. Invasions into Afghanistan and Iraq followed - along with a more nebulous third “war on terror” against Islamic radicalism.
America soon was torn apart over both the causes and the proper reaction to the attacks. The left often cited America’s foreign interventions and Middle East policies as provocations. It soon bitterly opposed the second war in Iraq and even more adamantly decried the anti-terrorism protocols that followed Sept. 11.
The right countered that only unwarranted hatred of the United States prompted the carnage. The best way, then, to prevent more Islamic terrorism was to go on the offensive abroad against regimes that sponsored terrorism, whether the Taliban’s or Saddam Hussein‘s. New security protocols and laws at home likewise were needed to prevent another major terrorist onslaught.
But a decade later, the unforeseen happened. More than 30 major attempts to trump the Sept. 11 attacks have all failed. Across the globe, radical Islam is in disarray. The U.S. military killed bin Laden. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, remains in hiding. The Arab world’s two most prominent murderous lunatics, Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, are dead. Middle Eastern theocracies and dictatorships have either fallen or are tottering.
For all our internal bickering, the Obama administration continued almost all of George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism policies. The Guantanamo detention center is still open. The Patriot Act remains in effect. Predator drone assassinations have increased tenfold. The subject of military tribunals, renditions and preventive detention elicits yawns.
For Vice President Joseph R. Biden, the Iraq war would prove his administration’s “great achievement.” For President Obama, another former opponent of the war, the effort to remove Saddam Hussein and foster constitutional government in his place was an “extraordinary achievement” - one in which America birthed “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” George W. Bush could not have said it better.
On quite a different day seven years later - Sept. 14, 2008 - the huge investment firm Lehman Brothers declared that it was broke as the subprime mortgage industry collapsed like a house of cards. The stock market continued a plunge that had begun a year earlier, with the market losing nearly half of its value from September 2007 to December 2008. Eventually, about $8 trillion worth of Americans’ home and retirement equity was wiped out.
The left blamed the innate greed of Wall Street, whose modern buccaneers had recklessly endangered the banking system in search of obscene billion-dollar profits. The right placed greater blame on the federal government, whose unhinged effort to ensure everyone the chance to buy a home resulted in guarantees for phony mortgage loans that could not be honored and should never have been written.
Yet three years later, there is general agreement over what followed from Sept. 14. The American financial system survived. In contrast, Europe’s system probably will not as we once knew it. Talk in Washington is about saving money and paying off debts - not borrowing more trillions. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street protests reflected a similar anger at an out-of-touch, Washington technocracy. The former’s participants were madder at big-government nincompoops who warped and manipulated free markets. The latter’s protesters were more furious at Wall Street investors who did the same.
After a decade of tragedy in Iraq, the stalemate in Afghanistan, the $9 trillion added to the federal debt, the continuing downturn, and the destruction of home and retirement equity, the United States did not unravel. Iraq did not end in a horrendous defeat. Bin Laden did not pull off any more Sept. 11s. Our constitutional freedoms were not lost. There was not a Great Depression following the financial panic. And our rivals now find themselves in more trouble than are we.
Americans will never agree on the causes of, and the reactions to, Sept. 11 and Sept. 14. But someday, after the present acrimony recedes, they will at least appreciate why, in an existential sense, their country survived both of those awful September days.
Quite simply, no other people has proved as resilient and self-critical, and no other constitution as stable and politically brilliant as ours.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
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