Next Monday, September 11, marks the fifth anniversary of the deadly attacks against New York and Washington that plunged the world into what we call the global war against terrorism. In a daring act of spectacular savagery, the terrorists of Al Qaeda struck at the heart of our culture and our civilization, seeking to throw our nation off balance, to weaken and divide our society. They aimed to land a blow that would put Western civilization on the defensive in the face — so they hoped — of a rising tide of militant, fundamentalist Islam.
Americans responded with an outpouring of unity and determination. Rallying behind President Bush, we vowed to carry the war to the enemy, to capture and punish those responsible for the atrocities, to crush the organization that had dispatched them, and to overturn the rogue states that had harbored and succored them. We summoned up soaring images of World War II, the last great struggle to unite us in such a widely shared sense of national mission. In 2001, as in 1941, we found ourselves thrust into a worldwide struggle of competing values. Now, as then, it was a war we had not chosen, but one in which we were determined that our side, and our values, would emerge the clear victors.
Now it is five years later, and we are not winning. The failure is striking: Six decades earlier, America had managed to enter and win World War II in the space of 44 months. The war against terrorism is now 60 months old, and we have not yet captured the main perpetrators nor broken up their organizations. On the contrary, Al Qaeda has evolved, adapted, spawned imitators and spread its influence farther than ever. The Islamic world is mobilized and angry, as the terrorists had hoped. America, far from establishing its primacy as a moral leader, finds itself more isolated and reviled than at any time in memory. The nations that we invaded and occupied, intending to root out fundamentalism and institute democracy, have become quagmires. Americans remain divided and rudderless, unable to agree even on the nature of our struggle. It is just as the terrorists had hoped.
This coming Monday, New Yorkers and others will mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks by gathering at the site of the ruined World Trade Center in New York City to read the names of the dead. The site, known locally as Ground Zero, was supposed to have been rebuilt by now as a soaring monument to the bravery of those who died and the indomitable spirit of those who carry on. Instead, it remains a hole in the ground, a sordid sandbox for quarreling politicians and businessmen. It is, sadly, a fitting symbol of our nation’s lack of leadership and vision as we stumble forward into the darkening gloom of the 21st century.