There's little doubt that few Americans have forgotten where they were when they first learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Nor have we forgotten the way the horrifying images of that day — graphically conveyed by television — were seared into our brains and our hearts.
But as we approach the fifth anniversary of this event, the more apt question is what exactly have we learned about a dangerous world that literally crashed into the consciousness of most Americans on that day of blood and fear?
Unfortunately, an accurate answer to that question is as much of a muddle as the bungled intelligence work and indifference to the terror threat on the part of many in positions of influence in the months and years prior to the crime.
Indeed, though the "war on terror" is now part of the permanent landscape of American security and our politics, few of us seem to have a firm grip on what exactly it is that we are fighting, or why this conflict should be considered a war at all. The need to concentrate our minds on increased vigilance against the ideological forces that are the mainspring of terror is increasingly seen as a secondary issue, overwhelmed by the noise emanating from political debates whose outcome seems to be more about personalities and partisanship than actual policy.
In that light, it is necessary to restate some fundamental truths about 9/11 and the world we live in.
First, the enemy isn't terror; it's an Islamist worldview that sees the West and all it represents as an enemy that must be destroyed. This belief, which blends murderous politics with extremist faith, may not be the ideological monolith that totalitarian threats such as Nazism and Communism represented. But it is, in the long run, no less dangerous. Though the term "Islamo-fascist" is inexact, it suffices to describe the lethal nature of the enemy — whether it is technically called Al Qaeda, Hamas or Hezbollah — and the impossibility of compromise with it.
As such, the struggle to defeat it will be the work of decades, and must be understood in the context of our long-term survival, and not merely in the lexicon of the attention-deficit-disorder mentality of the 24/7 news cycle.
The specific danger to Jews and the State of Israel by the rise of a hate-filled creed ready to highlight its anti-Semitism should also not be swept under the rug. The drumbeat of Jew-hatred emanating from Islam has become mainstream popular culture in the Arab and Muslim world, and is washing back into Europe, from where this virus originated. The popularity of urban myths seeking to blame the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the Jews or on Israel is just the tip of the iceberg. The demonization of Israel — and the systematic delegitimization of all Israeli measures of self-defense — remains a tell-tale symptom of the success of Islamist propaganda.
But the ultimate target of Islamism is the West itself, and not just the Jews. Those who think that America can simply disengage from this war by abandoning Israel want this country to repeat the same mistakes that appeasers of the past have made against other forms of evil. The actions of America or Israel are not "breeding" a new generation of terrorists. Rather, it is the false notion of the inevitability of the victory of the jihadists that's behind the popularity of Islamism. The best thing America and the West can do is to continue to attack radical Islamists wherever they may be, and to grant them no breathing space or excuse to claim victory.
We cannot pretend that future 9/11-type atrocities — such as those plots hatched, and fortunately squelched, in Britain — are not possible. But we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from the reality of the threat by either fear or complaisance.