In a sense it is true that “everything changed” on September 11—certainly in our understanding of where things were headed. Before the appearance of al Qaeda on these shores, only an army or an earthquake could kill 20,000 to 50,000 people in a morning. Had 9/11 not been primary day in New York, with many people going first to vote and thus being late for work, the lives lost in that single morning could easily have numbered in the tens of thousands. And that is what al Qaeda wanted.
This escalation in the methods of terror—linking eschatology and mass violence—means that other groups may aspire to at least the same degree of intimidation and wreckage. Violence has been reconceived, to focus on targets with a central place in a society’s self-understanding. The destruction of an Irish pub on the Derry Road has been replaced by the collapse of a major landmark. Al Qaeda advertised this weird aesthetic of obliteration in its earlier 1993 plot in New York, interrupted by the police, that sought to blow up the United Nations, the George Washington bridge, and the Lincoln and Holland tunnels in one grand chaotic gesture. The same nihilism also yielded the al-Qaeda bombing of Iraq’s Golden Mosque of Samarra in February 2006, which not only destroyed a sacred shrine but ransacked a tentative accord between Sunni and Shiite factions, and severely impeded the search for a new balance of power in Iraq.
America and its next President, regardless of party, will thus continue to face extreme difficulty in preserving the safety of our citizens and assisting Islam to regain its bearings. The political parlor game of should-we-or-should-we-not-have-intervened-in-Iraq-in-2003 should not distract from this verity. Even within the four corners of the “Iraq question”—and, with the ferocious intermeddling of Syria, Iran, and al Qaeda, Iraq does not have four corners—no critic of administration policy has stopped to wonder whether the intervention against Saddam might have gone better if we had acted in 1998, when Saddam first kicked out the American inspectors. In the event, we undertook to fight a war after allowing our opponent five years to prepare. Saddam used the time to sequester billions of dollars, truck his equipage to Syria, and empty his prisons, preparing his turn-key resistance during the slow diplomatic burn that preceded the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
And what if we had delayed intervention, past 2003? What then? In the face of French and Russian pressure, the lifting of Security Council sanctions and the opening of a new spigot of money for weapons purchases were all but ordained. And with the progress of Iran’s nuclear program, would not Saddam inevitably have reconstituted his WMD portfolio to fight a second Iran-Iraq war?
We have been sorely challenged in adapting our methods of land warfare against the hydra-headed insurgency in Iraq. The fight has been costly and rugged. It is startling how often in our polite society, with its publishers and professors, we lose sight of the reasons why American soldiers on the ground think the mission is important. There is equally little sense, in our post-ROTC world, of the solemn virtues of selflessness and courage that soldiers live by. Writers who have railed at our passivity in Rwanda might celebrate the braver course we have sustained in Iraq, trying to protect innocent lives from death by car bomb.
The mélange of threats coming from the Muslim world and the demimonde of weapons proliferation will call for different skills and capacities in government. Within the intelligence community, a new generation of linguists must be trained to decrypt conversations conducted in Pashtun, Arabic, Farsi, and Korean, as well as in computer code. Intelligence collection can be stymied when the unit size for lethal combat is limited to al-Qaeda squads of three or four. Analyzing the loose chains of linkage, in phone numbers, leases, and itineraries, is not the conventional way to identify who is a “soldier,” and penetration is far more difficult in this unconventional war.
In addition, there is the problem of states that provide sanctuary. We will face real dilemmas when foreign governments cannot thwart the misuse of their territory by al Qaeda. But international law has been usefully changed by Security Council resolution 1373, and the UN’s imperative demand that states must prevent the use of their soil as training platforms for insurgents.
In a June 2001 essay in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section, I paid tribute to a federal prosecutor in Manhattan for winning criminal convictions after the bombing attacks on our embassies in East Africa. Truck bombs prepared by al Qaeda had toppled the buildings in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 220 and wounding more than 4,000. Many of the victims were Muslim. Acknowledging a brilliantly-conducted trial, my essay also warned that criminal charges were not enough. Behind every conviction lay an intelligence failure, and our inability to dismantle the infrastructure that generated these attacks meant that more attacks would follow.
I was approached by several veterans of the intelligence community who reported that, to their similar alarm, there was no sharing of information between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, and hence no integrated picture of al Qaeda. I relayed their account to the senior staff of an intelligence committee on Capitol Hill. The problem was real and serious. But as my interlocutors predicted, nothing would be done about it in the extant political climate.
9/11 changed all that, too, though not soon enough. The national-security doctrine propounded by the Bush administration now holds that it is not adequate to punish mass-casualty bombers after they have attacked. Rather, the duty of any President is to protect his fellow citizens, and other innocent life, before the harm is done. The means should be proportionate, and we should speak in the language of law. But the “responsibility to protect”—a foreign-policy ideal celebrated in both liberal and conservative circles—is not discharged by convicting the suicide bomber who survives a failed attack. The pooling of information and the denial of overseas sanctuary are practical necessities if we are to thwart a terrorist organization that operates in cyberspace before it mounts terrestrial and aerial attacks.
The new mode of catastrophic terrorism can be countered only by dismantling al Qaeda’s leadership, funding, and ideology. Catalyzing the necessary institutional changes in American government, and mustering the courage to act when a moment of opportunity presents itself, are the burdens that belong to any responsible President.