Little Solace on a Day of Infamy

My son flies from the East Coast to the West Coast today. The cost of his flight is absurdly cheap. That’s because today is a day when people are still afraid to fly. Today, of course, is the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

President Franklin Roosevelt called the Dec. 7, 1941 suicide attack on Pearl Harbor a day that would live in infamy. But that day will never compare to Sept. 11, 2001 for one reason:

Civilian targets.

There is probably no such thing as honor in a sneak attack designed to kill as many people as possible. But there is a distinction between collateral damage and blatantly barbaric behavior.

The Japanese went after ships with sailors in war planes.

Al-Qaeda went after buildings with brokers in civilian airliners.

This is the sucker punch Americans will never forget. Nor can they afford to. The debate over the Iraq War often obscures this fact.

Though I almost never agree with Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo and find most of his rhetoric about hating and distrusting foreigners to empower racism, Tancredo is right about one thing:

We are at war with radical Islam.

This war will be waged for the rest of my lifetime and probably my children’s, perhaps even my granddaughter’s lifetime and beyond. This war is one we likely cannot win in terms most of us understand.

But it just as surely is a war we dare not lose.

That doesn’t mean the unilateral invasion of sovereign nations like Iraq or Iran. It doesn’t mean prisons holding hundreds of people for years without charging them with crimes. It doesn’t mean the FBI tapping phones or collecting private records without court orders. It clearly doesn’t mean using torture techniques such as water-boarding in interrogating the enemy.

Tancredo, a chicken hawk who sought a draft deferment for depression during Vietnam, has advocated such savagery in at least two debates among would-be Republican presidential candidates. He’s found support among his peers, many of whom are also chicken hawks.

Still, those who think 9/11 will not continue to indelibly mark Americans’ lives or that a war on terror does not have to be continuously and aggressively pursued simply fool themselves. What happened six years ago on this day permanently changed the rules of engagement.

However coarse their tactics, the soldiers we fought in Germany, Japan, Korea and Vietnam fought predominantly to survive. Suicide missions such as Pearl Harbor were the exception.

Suicide missions rule the strategy of our current enemy. Mission one is no longer killing the enemy before he kills you. Mission one is now finding him before he kills himself.

Because when he kills himself, he cares only that he takes a lot of us with him.

And he doesn’t care what we ever did to him personally. He doesn’t even care if our culture never tried to change his. He believes so singularly in his own righteousness that he can’t abide anyone who holds a different view.

Deep discounts on airfare on a day when people are afraid to fly will never change that. And that is the most frightening lesson of 9/11.

We now occupy a world where no one can expect to live and let live.

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