The 15th anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 should be a time for mourning, commemoration, reflection — and strategic planning.
But many people prefer to avoid thinking too much about how life was interrupted on that sunshiny Tuesday morning: mothers and fathers making one final phone call to their children; office workers who, an hour earlier, were deciding where to have dinner, now deciding whether to be consumed by flames or leap to their deaths; dutiful police and firefighters rushing into the World Trade Center never to come out again; a long plume of smoke rising from the gray rubble of what had been great edifices bustling with commercial activity as America-haters, domestic and foreign, began to babble about chickens coming home to roost.
In much of the media, what happened will no doubt be described as a tragedy, rather than what it was: an act of war and an atrocity. We’ll hear only a little about al Qaeda’s current status, and next to nothing about its relationship to the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran, about how the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Shabab, Boko Haram and Lashkar-e-Taiba fit into the picture.
President George W. Bush responded to Sept. 11 with energy and determination. But his approach was flawed: “Terrorism” is not the enemy, only a weapon deployed by the enemy. As for “terror,” that’s a synonym for fear, and a “war on fear” is not a serious concept.
President Obama’s approach has been worse: He has maintained that we face nothing more than “violent extremists” motivated by “grievances.” That obfuscates rather than explains who our enemies are, what they believe and what they intend.
Fifteen years ago, most of those who watched the passenger planes crashing into the twin towers and the Pentagon understood that the world was about to change. And it has. For one thing, it should now be apparent that the vision many people had of the world becoming a “global village” — with everyone interconnected and interdependent, holding similar views and wanting more or less the same things — was incorrect. On the contrary, the world is divergent.
The civilization that has evolved in the West is pluralistic and tolerant. Go to any major city in America or Europe or Israel, for that matter: You’ll see a broad variety of religious and ethnic groups coexisting, their basic human and civil rights protected. The same cannot be said about what we have come to call the Islamic World.
In what used to be Syria and Iraq, Christians, Yazidis and other minorities are facing genocide. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims have been fleeing Pakistan for decades. Jews were driven out of Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus more than a half-century ago and the small Jewish community left in Iran, along with the remaining Zoroastrians and Christians, are inferiors under the Islamic republic’s laws, while the Baha’i suffer unrelenting persecution. And wherever Islamists establish themselves, from Mali to Bangladesh to Indonesia, Muslims with moderate rather than militant interpretations of their faith are targeted.
Another way to say this: The divisions are only deepening between the multicultural world, where those who wield power accept and even welcome the “other,” and an increasingly monocultural world where medievalists enslave, expel and slaughter the “other.”
So those who argue that the waves of Middle Eastern and North African migrants arriving in Europe are simply an inevitable aspect of “globalization” have been misinformed. There’s nothing “global” about it. Raqqa, Tehran and Gaza City are not becoming more like Western cities. Western cities could, however, become more like Raqqa, Tehran and Gaza.
Of course, many of the migrants in Europe will treasure the freedom they find. Many will embrace human rights and what we call “universal values” (which are, I’d argue, actually Western, post-Enlightenment values) as well as “modernization” (by which I suspect we really mean “westernization”).
But some will not. Instead, they will live in separate communities that also may be thought of as ghettoes — or colonies. They will insist on the supremacy of their divinely inspired laws over rules made by mere mortals.
They will not engage in respectful debate with those who disagree. They will label them infidels or apostates or blasphemers. They will threaten them and, if that does not produce acquiescence, they will murder them (think Charlie Hebdo) or maybe those akin to them (think the Bataclan and Nice). From their perspective, the democratic experiment of recent centuries has been a mistake and a failure. They will do what they can to hasten its demise.
Their success is not inevitable. But it is hardly impossible. And if Western leaders continue on the present course, it may be likely.
The 15th anniversary of Sept. 11 should be a time to think hard about what happened, and why and what we are prepared to do to stop those determined to do it again and again. I know: Many of us are tired of fighting. Many of us — including many on our campuses, of all places — are no longer inspired by what previous generations called “liberty.” They talk about “rights” and “social justice” but what they really mean are “entitlements.”
But some of us are convinced that nothing is more urgent than defending Western civilization, its diverse cultures and ways of living. If we do not, on an anniversary of Sept. 11 a generation or two hence, the world may indeed look like a global village — with those in power celebrating, rather than mourning, what happened on a sunshiny Tuesday morning long ago.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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