Many of the quarrels that dominate American politics today turn on the status of 9/11. Is it to be understood primarily as a tragedy, or as an attack? A moment to move beyond, or a defining moment? A talking point, or a turning point?
Norman Podhoretz considers 9/11 an attack, a defining moment, and a turning point. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who is as prominent a figure in the liberal foreign-policy establishment as Podhoretz is in the neoconservative counterestablishment, would beg to differ. Three years after 9/11, Friedman criticized the Bush administration and its supporters for being “addicted to 9/11.” Friedman looked forward to the day when September 11 would once again be restored
to its rightful place on the calendar: as the day after September 10 and before September 12. I do not want it to become a day that defines us. Because ultimately September 11 is about them—the bad guys—not about us. We’re about the Fourth of July.
Now Norman Podhoretz, whose most recent memoir bears the title My Love Affair with America, is no slouch when it comes to celebrating the Fourth of July. But he would surely diagnose Friedman’s comments as symptomatic of liberals’ lack of seriousness. It would be nice to wish away the significance of 9/11 because one does not “want it to become a day that defines us.” But wishful thinking—however precious—is still wishful thinking.
What neoconservatives know is that we are not simply free to choose what defines us. They also know that 9/11 was not simply “about them—the bad guys.” It was, and is, also about us. It is about acts of heroism in New York and at the Pentagon and aboard United Flight 93. And it is about our subsequent response to that day’s attack—a response that has featured a fair amount of courage and honor and even, on occasion, genuine nobility.
Podhoretz’s book is unembarrassedly framed by 9/11. He quotes one liberal internationalist bemoaning the “post-11 September reorientation of American foreign policy.” In response, he argues that 9/11 demanded just such a reorientation, and that the President deserves great credit for providing one. The Bush Doctrine—at least as proclaimed, if not always in practice—consists of an intolerance of terror or state sponsorship of terror, a willingness to consider preemption, especially against terror-states developing weapons of mass destruction, and a commitment to fostering liberal democracy as part of a solution to the problems of the Middle East. Podhoretz ably makes the case for such a reorientation of American foreign policy.
Is “World War IV” the best term for the struggle we are in? About that I am less convinced. Analogies to the early years of the cold war, or to the rocky course of World War II, can be helpful in stimulating thinking about the challenges we face—but in the end an analogy is just an analogy. And, as is par for the course for many grand historical analogies, the differences in the cases cited are often as striking as the similarities, as Podhoretz himself sometimes acknowledges. I might add that I am also not convinced of the utility of the term Islamofascism, since the modifier seems more fundamental to the phenomenon than the noun. I would incline to use either jihadism, our enemies’ own term, or takfirism, the term favored by mainstream Muslims fighting the terrorists.
But whatever one’s terminological preferences, the core of Podhoretz’s case is eminently sensible: that, post-9/11, we live in a new world, requiring new thinking. He provides much useful guidance to such thinking, especially with respect to the war over the war: i.e., the domestic political fights both over Iraq and over the broader struggle against terror-sponsoring dictators and death-loving jihadists. Podhoretz is alarmed by the strength of the antiwar movement and of anti-Americanism more broadly. But he is heartened by the strengths of America, particularly “the young Americans in uniform, all volunteers.” To them, he offers a striking tribute: “In their determination, their courage, and their love of country, they are by all accounts a match, and more than a match, for their forebears.” The 9/11 generation is one reason Podhoretz is able to resist Whittaker Chambers-like despair.
Doubts are harder to avoid when one turns to the question of our leaders. But here, too, there are reasons for hope. Bush has in many respects risen to the occasion, and today’s leading Republican presidential candidates do not seek to shirk our post-9/11 responsibilities. For their part, the Democratic candidates at least occasionally show signs of knowing better than their campaign rhetoric typically suggests. But it is true that the vacuousness of the mainstream media, the childishness of many in Congress, and the fatuousness of the foreign-policy establishment—these do not fill one with confidence.
The columnist Mark Steyn recently reported on a speech at a 9/11 commemoration ceremony by Deval Patrick, the liberal governor of Massachusetts. September 11, said Patrick, was “a failure of human beings to understand each other, to learn to love each other.” Steyn’s comment:
We should beware anyone who seeks to explain 9/11 by using the words “each other”: they posit a grubby equivalence between the perpetrator and the victim—that the “failure to understand” derives from the culpability of both parties.
And, Steyn continued:
It was the failure of one group of human beings to understand that the second group of human beings was determined to kill them that led the crew and passengers of those Boston flights to stick with the obsolescent 1970’s hijack procedures until it was too late. Unfortunately, the obsolescent 1970’s multiculti love-groove inclinations of society at large are harder to dislodge.
Since 9/11, these destructive inclinations have begun to be dislodged. They would be further dislodged—perhaps even routed—if more of our leaders were animated by just a bit of Norman Podhoretz’s implacable determination and fighting spirit