The approach of an anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 always concentrates my mind. It was, astonishingly, 16 Septembers ago that a team of foreign terrorists hijacked three American passenger planes and used them as weapons of mass destruction. Can anyone forget the images of people leaping to their deaths to avoid being consumed by fire and smoke, the twin towers collapsing, the ashes rising, children struggling to come to terms with the fact that they’d never see their mothers and fathers again?
Actually, some people can. The tiki-torch Nazis and the black-shirted anarcho-communist Antifa have moved on. What excites them and, frankly, too many others, is pitting Americans against Americans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender — whatever. As though we hadn’t an enemy in the world.
Millions of lives were changed forever by Sept. 11. Mine among them. A few days prior, I met with Jack Kemp and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Younger readers, if I have any, will not remember these extraordinary individuals and, given the sad state of our schools, may not have learned about them.
Jack Kemp was a professional quarterback who went on to become a Reaganite congressman, a “bleeding-heart conservative,” a presidential candidate in the 1988 primaries, secretary of housing and urban development, and the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1996.
Jeane Kirkpatrick was the daughter of an Oklahoma oil wildcatter who never struck it rich. She became a distinguished political scientist, the first woman to serve as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and the only Democrat on President Reagan’s National Security Council. She was combative, authoritative, eloquent and elegant — an exceedingly rare combination.
I’d become acquainted with them during my years as a New York Times reporter and foreign correspondent. At that moment, however, I was doing a stint at a Washington, D.C. consultancy. They told me they were concerned that, with the Cold War concluded, the United States had taken a holiday from history and a premature peace dividend. Who attacked us in Beirut in 1983, in New York City in 1993, at Khobar Towers in 1996? Who bombed two of our embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000?
Meanwhile, Israel was being hit by waves of suicide bombers and too many people seemed to be saying, “Well, you know, the Palestinians have grievances.” When did grievances become a license for murdering other people’s children? And those who harbor grievances against America — will we excuse the violence they inflict on us, too?
They asked me to do a bit of research, to determine whether any serious attempts were being made to understand what was happening and to devise policies to effectively defend America and other democratic societies from terrorists, their masters and financiers.
A few days later the attack they’d feared and anticipated came to pass. The media reports and academic analyses that followed were superficial at best, deceptive at worst. My next assignment: Produce a blueprint for a policy institute that would focus on the ideologies, movements and regimes driving terrorism and what can be done about them.
They then proposed that I quit my job and, as quickly as possible, begin building that institute, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. They knew a few philanthropists who were seized by these issues (as they say in Washington) and who’d be willing to help get the ball rolling.
Among the reasons I agreed: Two people with whom I’d been close were murdered on that day, one in the World Trade Center, the other on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. On a less emotional level, the specter of a war against the West had been on my mind since 1979 when I was a reporter sent to cover the revolution in Iran. The regime that emerged, the Islamic Republic, was openly and vehemently committed to jihad — a word that was new to me at the time.
That same year, a group of ultra-Wahhabi rebels in Saudi Arabia seized Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. After two weeks of intense battles (and with the help of French commandos) the rebellion was quashed. But the Saudi response was not what one might have supposed.
Instead of working to counter violent extremism, the royals spent the next two decades attempting to demonstrate their commitment to jihad. They lavished billions of petrodollars on mosques and madrassas around the world where imams taught that Muslims have a duty to spill the blood of infidels, apostates and blasphemers, and to reclaim the power and glory that the great Islamic empires once enjoyed.
One other significant event in 1979: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We thought the enemy of our enemy must be our friend. How naive and ignorant we were.
Since then, a global insurgency has spread. It intends to destroy America, its allies and the liberal international order. In 2001, our enemies turned jets into missiles. Imagine if they’d had nuclear weapons. How long before Pyongyang or Tehran has spares to sell or even give them?
Sixteen Septembers ago, enemies emerged out of a clear, blue, late summer sky. In truth, of course, the storm had been gathering for decades. We simply chose not to know or understand.
I wonder what our grandchildren will think of us. Will we be seen as another “greatest generation,” one that did what was necessary to defend civilization and defeat totalitarianism in its latest guise? Or will we be remembered as disoriented, so polarized by our competing cultural and political identities and our sense of victimhood that we failed even to recognize the most critical challenges facing America in this fraught era? Predictions are worthless. All that matters is how we choose to spend the Septembers left to us.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.