I have been wanting to comment on a most curious phenomenon in the current American culture - the inability or unwillingness to reflect culturally on the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the resultant War on Terror. Aside from conspiracy-mongering movies, some "special episodes" of favorite pre-existing TV series, a moving but strange Springsteen album, and a few country songs, there really has been little cultural acknowledgement over a world-changing event now 42 months old. No Casablanca. No "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," or "American Patrol." Not even a "Where Have All The Flowers Gone."
September 11th seems to be headed for America's attic, where we keep our memories of Reconstruction, Korea, and World War One.
I have decided to post a column by Mark Steyn, a prolific conservative columnist featured in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic and in National Review.
I wanted to comment on it, but after serious consideration, the column in its entirety speaks far better than I can.
So with all due apologies to Mr. Steyn, here is that column.
A WARTIME MILESTONE
A week and a half after the VE Day anniversary, here’s a date that will get a lot less attention: May 19th 2005. On that day, the war on terror will have outlasted America’s participation in the Second World War. In other words, the period since 9/11 will be longer than the period of time between Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
Does it seem that long? For the most part, no. The war on terror has involved no major mobilization of the population at large. In contrast to Casablanca, Mrs Miniver, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me”, “The Last Time I Saw Paris”, “Victory Polka”, “Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition” and “There’ll Be A Hot Time In The Town Of Berlin”, American popular culture has preferred to sit this one out, aside from Michael Moore’s crockumentaries and incoherent soundbites from every Hollywood airhead who gets invited to European film festivals. And the response of US government agencies hasn’t been much better: In his testimony to the 9/11 commission, George Tenet said blithely that it would take another half-decade to rebuild the CIA’s joke of a clandestine service. In other words, three years after 9/11, he was saying he needed another five years. Imagine if FDR had turned to Tenet to start up the OSS. In 1942, he’d have told the President not to worry, we’ll have it up and running by 1950.
So, while this war may have started with the first direct assault on American territory since Pearl Harbor, it’s clearly evolved into a different kind of conflict, one in which after three and a half years it’s hard for many Americans to maintain the sense that it’s a “war” at all. By now, National Review’s British, Commonwealth and European readers will be huffing that the Second World War wasn’t three and a half years long, you idiots; it was six years, except for certain latecomers who turned up halfway through. Fair point. But if the Americans were late getting into World War II they were also late getting into the war on terror: Al-Qaeda’s bombers, Saudi moneymen and Wahhabi clerics had been trying to catch Washington’s eye for years only to be dismissed, as then Defense Secretary Bill Cohen said of the attack on the USS Cole, as “not sufficiently provocative”. You’ll have to do better than that, Osama!
So he did. And you have to wonder whether, despite the increased T-shirt sales among the impressionable young men in the Egyptian and Pakistani bazaars, that was such a smart move. When bin Laden started yakking on about his “war aims” - taking back Spain, the restoration of the Caliphate - it was easy to scoff, yeah, dream on, loser. But a cursory glance at demographics quickly made it clear that, insofar as Europe has a future, it’s likely to be an Islamic one. That being so, why louse things up by flying planes into buildings? Why not just lie low and in the fullness of time everything you want will come your way? The Wahhabists have successfully radicalized hitherto moderate Muslim communities from Albania to Indonesia; they’ve planted their most radical clerics as in-house padres throughout US prisons and even the armed forces. Why screw things up by doing something so provocative it meets even Bill Cohen’s criteria for a response?
Here’s why. It’s always useful to test the limits of your adversaries, and, though it cost them their camps in Afghanistan and much of their leadership, the 9/11 attacks exposed many useful tidbits about the decadence of the west – the worthlessness of the post-modern NATO “alliance” and the active hostility of many of its key members to the United States, the immense deference accorded not just to Islam but to the most radical Islamic groups, especially when it comes to immigration and other aspects of national security. Many Islamists might have suspected all this but it’s heartening to have it confirmed: if the “sleeping giant” is hard to wake up, his European pals aren’t sleeping so much as in irreversible comas.
Thus, if this war is, as existential struggles go, much closer to the Cold War, there’s one key difference. The Cold War was mostly fought by proxies and clients out on the periphery: Vietnam, Yemen, Chile, Afghanistan, Grenada… This time round the periphery’s falling into place very easily: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, moves in the right direction throughout the Middle East, swathes of Central Asia falling under US influence… But the real battleground is the west itself, the heart of Europe, where bombs in Spain, murders in the Netherland, honor killings in Germany prompt only shrugs or pre-emptive capitulation from the political class. Perhaps in the end the comparison isn’t World War Two or the Cold War, but the one that created the modern Middle East in the first place – the First World War, which began with one specific act of violence and unraveled all the great European empires before it was done. Nearly four years after 9/11, a war that started with a bang seems to have fizzled to a whimper – whiney Dems, bureaucratic Homeland Security, nothing much on the horizon. Not so. There’s plenty ahead.
Mark Steyn, National Review, May 12th 2005