September 10, 2016 - 8:00 pm
Fifteen years ago this morning I heard a bang and felt a vibration that I thought was a car accident on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Then my phone rang with the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I went out to the end of my block in Brooklyn Heights and looked out across the East River at the plume of smoke rising from Lower Manhattan.
It smelled for weeks.
Lots of people had more immediate September 11 stories. They were married to firefighters. Or their dads worked at Cantor Fitzgerald or Windows on the World. Or their sons or daughters volunteered afterward to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan and came back dead or missing legs.
Plenty of people were less involved, too. They weren’t in New York or at the Pentagon that day. Or they don’t know anyone who died. Or, like some of this year’s college freshmen, they are too young even to remember seeing it on the news.
What I find most surprising about the 15 years since the attack is how little progress has been made in the conflict against militant Islamist terrorism.
Sure, since September 11, 2011, no attack of a similar scale has been perpetrated against an American target. Osama bin Laden has been killed.
Some of us said back at the time that the war against militant Islamism would be like the Cold War against Soviet Communism, a conflict that stretched on for generations.
Some of us also observed back then that the September 11, 2001, attack was just the latest in a long war with engagements that included the bombing of U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983; the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988; the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996; the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000; and countless suicide bombing attacks aimed at Israeli civilians.
But even so, if someone had told me 15 years ago that in 15 years, we’d be facing the aftermath of a year of Islamist terrorist attacks that took a total of more than 200 lives in Orlando, San Bernardino, Paris, Nice and Brussels, and that a self-proclaimed “Islamic State” specializing in videotaped beheadings of American captives would control parts of Syria and Iraq, including oil wells and revenues, and that the American government would have airlifted hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to the terror-sponsoring radical Islamist regime in Iran — well, I’d certainly have raised a skeptical eyebrow.
Is this what “winning” looks like?
Compared to World War II (less than four years from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima) or the Civil War (about 4 years from the Battle of Fort Sumter until Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox), the Global War on Terror (GWOT, as it was known for a while in the George W. Bush administration), seems nearly interminable. Decisive victory has been elusive. That’s so even if one starts timing the war’s length merely from September 11, 2001, rather than from some earlier date such as the Iranian Revolution and related U.S. embassy hostage crisis of 1979.
Perhaps, though, a focus on 2001 or even 1979 is too short-range a view. Al-Qaida and the radical Islamists nursed a grievance dating back to the Battle of Vienna, when, on September 11 and 12, 1683, the Christian forces of Poland and the Holy Roman Empire turned back the Ottoman Turkish Muslims.
That was 333 years ago, enough to make the 15 years since 2011, or the 37 years since 1979, or even the 240 years since the American Declaration of Independence, seem short.
Our enemies, in other words, are playing the long game. Will we?
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of “JFK: Conservative.” His column appears Sunday.