On September 11, 2001, America changed in ways we still struggle to accept. The pain of loss may fade to a dull ache, but it never really goes away. And the rage triggered by senseless acts hardens into resolve to make sense of a world in which innocents die in the name of a perverse version of God. Six years later, as we pause to remember the early martyrs of this protracted conflict, we should remind ourselves what they died for, and what it will take to win the war that took them from us.
The events of that morning in 2001 awoke a slumbering giant, rousing us from passive victimhood to the role of powerful protagonist in a global movement to protect human freedom against rapacious fanaticism. But passage of six years without another major attack here seems to have obscured rather than enlightened our view of who we oppose, why we fight and what’s at stake if we lose. Rather than using the lengthening historical horizon to elevate our perspective, we have allowed the debate over next steps in Iraq to draw us deep into the political weeds.
Regardless of whether you view Iraq as a central front in the fight against global terrorism, or as an enervating distraction, the fate of that nation has become one undeniable element of our post-9/11 strategic equation. But just one. Winning there would not solve all our problems. Nor would leaving.
There are no quick or easy answers in Iraq or in the broader war against transnational terrorism. Succumbing to self-delusion ("If we quit Iraq, radical Muslims will stop hating us.") and indulging false choices ("The real war is in Afghanistan.") only abrogates our responsibility to confront the many, more nuanced issues affecting our national security in the post-9/11 world: an emboldened, nuclear Iran, a resurgent Taliban, a divided Palestinian government, and our continued dependence on foreign oil as our economic lifeblood.
The loss of a strategic perspective and a return to dysfunction as usual in Washington may be a natural reaction to the grim challenges of a generational struggle against a shadowy global nemesis. We crave the normalcy of a more peaceful age. Wars, even cold ones, have to end. But, as in the almost 50-year contest against Soviet Communism, our normalcy has to be defined by a constant vigilance and a willingness to use all the instruments of national power, not just the military, to advance the cause of human freedom. The same strategic rules apply: Maintain security, grow the economy, protect civil liberties and vocally join the public battle of ideas.
As a nation with global responsibilities, we need to climb out of the domestic political trenches and reclaim the high ground so dearly purchased six years ago. We do the victims of 9/11 a great disservice if we do not take bipartisan steps toward regaining that strategic perspective. Given the proven strength of our ideals, and the moral bankruptcy of those who exalt death over life, defeat in this war can only be self-inflicted through loss of patience and focus.
Today, and every day, the voices of those who died implore us to raise our sights and take that longer view.