9/11, Five Years Later

Published September 13, 2006

Five years ago, confronted by the rubble in lower Manhattan, the smoldering wreckage at the Pentagon, and the debris of United 93, most Americans instinctively, and correctly, understood that the country was at war. But with what? Or whom? What was at stake, and what passions motivated an enemy who struck in this way?

Those questions have been debated with the vigor appropriate to a mature democracy for the past half-decade. Recent events in Lebanon should have had a clarifying effect on the debate. Our enemies may call this the latest round of “Islam vs. the Crusaders.” We should name it for what it is: the global war against radical Islamic jihadism, which aims at nothing less than the submission of the entire world, by violence if necessary, to what it understands to be the will of Allah.

That the war is global can no longer be doubted. It is inaccurate to speak of the “Afghanistan War” or the “Iraq War,” or “the war in Lebanon,” as if these were discrete incidents. They are different fronts in the same war. And whether the enemy is Sunni radicalism or Shia radicalism (or an alliance of convenience between the two), the enemy’s strategic purpose is the same: to impose Islam for its own sake (because this is what Allah requires of the faithful) and/or to hasten the end of days, the appearance of the Twelfth Imam, and the kingdom to come.

As for the most recently opened front, Hizbollah has never needed much excuse to lob rockets into Israel, deliberately targeting women and children. In this instance, however, one of Hizbollah’s motivations was to deflect international attention from Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, just as the G8, the U.N., and even the European Union were preparing to bring serious pressure to bear on Tehran. To repeat: the same war is being fought on multiple fronts, not unlike like the world wars of the twentieth century.

Five years after 9/11, and facing an adversary prepared to carry on the struggle for decades, even centuries, the peoples of the West, while retaining our distinctive commitment to moral self-examination and self-criticism, must shed the bad habit of gratuitous self-flagellation. British prime minister Tony Blair put this well in a speech in Los Angeles last month:

“…it is almost incredible to me that so much of Western opinion appears to buy the idea that the emergence of this global terrorism is somehow our fault…No one who even half bothers to look at the spread and range of activity related to terrorism can fail to see its presence in virtually every major nation in the world. It is directed at the United States and its allies, of course. But it is also directed at nations who could not conceivably be said to be allies of the West. It is also rubbish to suggest that it is the product of poverty. It is true [that] it will use the cause of poverty. But its fanatics are hardly the champions of economic development. It is based on religious extremism. That is the fact. And not any religious extremism, but a specifically Muslim version.”

The West must also recognize the stakes in this war, which are nothing less than the moral truths at the heart of our civilization: the inviolability of innocent human life; the sanctuary of religious conscience; the dignity of the human person as the bearer of inalienable rights; the moral superiority of consent over coercion as a political method. Radical jihadism denies every one of these truths, and indeed regards them as abominations. I’d suggest substituting “moral truths” for that overused and slippery term “values;” but do that, and I think Prime Minister Blair defined the stakes correctly when he told his audience that “what is happening today out in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and beyond, is an elemental struggle about the values that will shape our future.” Nothing less than that is at issue.

This is a mid-1930s moment. The adversary is energized and ruthless; it has its apologists; it counts on our weakness. The West must not make the mistake of appeasement again.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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