The Washington Post
The tragic price of forgetting Sept. 11
We will never forget. That was the solemn promise we heard again and again from our nation’s leaders after the devastation of 9/11. Don’t believe it. We will forget. In some ways, we have already forgotten. And we will continue to pay a tragic price for our fading memory and tremulous resolve in the face of terror.
Twenty years ago, 19 savages commandeered four commercial airliners carrying unsuspecting civilian passengers and used them to take down New York’s World Trade Center towers and crash into the Pentagon. The one likely destined for the Capitol was brought down only because of the heroics of a few brave Americans who refused to surrender.
Thousands of Americans were killed, maimed and burned beyond recognition that day. One of them was my wife, Barbara, on board American Airlines Flight 77. She managed to call me from the plane at my Justice Department office and report that it had been hijacked. A few minutes later, the television showed smoke pouring from the Pentagon.
I don’t talk about this much, because so many others suffered such devastating losses that day. As a nation, we were stunned, shocked, disbelieving. How could the most powerful country in the world be decapitated in the course of a few hours by a few zealots armed with box cutters?
For years prior to 9/11, our people, institutions and military had been victims of terrorist attacks at home and abroad. Our responses had been, to put it charitably, tepid and ineffectual. The terrorists, trained and provided sanctuary throughout the Middle East, including by the Taliban in Afghanistan, were neither impressed nor deterred. Their hatred of the United States was, and remains, too entrenched, too visceral, to be dissuaded by a few tough-sounding speeches.
But the 9/11 attacks were too horrible, too shocking and too audacious for the shopworn, mostly symbolic responses of the past. This time, we had to do something; we had to mean it. So we went to war to ensure that the Taliban could no longer provide a haven to terrorists; we tracked down and killed the leader of the gang who had attacked us that day.
After a while, growing weary of the seemingly endless struggle, and the pain and resources it demanded, we began the process of forgetting.
But the Taliban and the terrorists with whom they collaborate do not forget. They are driven by a cruel, rigid, harsh and unrelenting religious zealotry. They dominate and oppress their own people, subjugate their women, and torture and behead anyone who dissents or departs from their barbaric regime.
We know who and what they are. We have labeled them as terrorists and placed bounties on the heads of some of their leaders. Yet it takes immense resources, tenacity and, sadly, loss of lives to fight them. The effort and cost can be enervating. We grow tired; we want to wish them away. We start to forget.
And that is what we have done. We have chosen to blind ourselves to our known and unrelenting enemy. We resort to comfortable and soft concepts such as “diplomacy” and “negotiation.” We pretend they have changed. We listen to soothing lies. We fantasize that if we just put our arms around them, they will be nice, civilized, decent. Remember how well that worked with Hitler.
So we talked ourselves into believing in a kinder, gentler Taliban. We promised to leave its territory and allowed the Afghan government to release into the world thousands of captured terrorists. We decided, with unthinking irony, to “honor” the victims of 9/11 by selecting that date for our surrender to the very same Taliban who had spawned the devastation of that day.
We walked away from an air base that had cost our citizens billions of dollars. We surrendered vast quantities of helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, military vehicles, arms and ammunition for them to use against us and their own people.
In our scurried flight, we abandoned thousands of Afghans who had supported and worked for us. We reportedly gave the Taliban lists and the means of identifying our friends and its enemies.
With nods and winks, we promised recognition, legitimacy, financial support, and international status and credibility. We made peace and accommodation with murderers, rapists, sadists and thugs.
No sooner had we turned over control of the remaining air base from which we hoped to extricate our soldiers, citizens and allies than we were rewarded with a suicide bombing that killed more than 170 Afghans and 13 of our finest young men and women. How tragically predictable — the first of many acts of terrorism that we will soon see unleashed on ourselves and the world.
Our response: “We will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down.” We have come full circle.
Who will believe us? We have shown that we will forget and we do forgive. We will find it expedient to make peace with the Devil. And we will surely pay the price in the form of the next attack on our soil or in a restaurant in Paris or on a playing field in Spain.
We will sadly soon realize: We can fool ourselves into thinking that we have made peace with terrorists. But terrorism has not made peace with us.