Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with President Bush visiting Florida, I was working from home in Alexandria, Va., on some forgotten domestic speech the president never gave. As events unfolded in Manhattan, I left for the White House. Nearing the Pentagon, I saw a plane flying low over the highway -- so low I could clearly see the windows. It was only later that I considered the fear behind them.

What followed, for my part, was years of words. Words of comfort. Words of resolution. Words in cathedrals and before Congress and at military cemeteries.

But now, finally, the words of Osama bin Laden's obituary.

9/11 was the cruel and random suffering of an earthquake -- but an earthquake with an author, well pleased by his work. Nothing was more obscene that day than his delight.

On 9/11, however, America awakened to problems larger than one man's evil and goals greater than his punishment. The main strategic consequence of 9/11 was to lower America's threshold of acceptable risk. In a world of countless dangers, a president must choose which to confront and which to tolerate. A threat that germinated in Sudan and thrived in Afghan training camps had been considered worth monitoring but not ending.

Following 9/11, this and similar threats would not be tolerated. Call this pre-emption or hide behind euphemism, but an American president could no longer allow dangers to fully form before acting. The Afghan War became inevitable. The Iraq War was wrong in diagnosis but not in theory -- far fewer would have objected if weapons of mass destruction had been found. The prospect of a nuclear Iran became less acceptable. Drone strikes and special operations raids against terrorist targets began and still expand.

The result has been a global war of varied intensity and uncertain duration. By the measure of preventing terrorist attacks on America, it has been a success. By the measure of military casualties, it is a sad and continual burden. The rules of this unprecedented conflict have been improvised by generals, courts and lawyers, to almost no one's satisfaction. Americans, to the extent they pay attention, seem weary of the whole enterprise. But even a president who campaigned as a peace candidate has been compelled by his daily intelligence briefings to intensify the war. And it does not end in Abbottabad.

A return to innocence is not possible without an increase in danger. With terrorism increasingly empowered by technology, pre-9/11 calculations of acceptable risk are even less responsible.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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