Three years ago this morning, we woke up, checked e-mail, and got a note from
our pal Carlos saying hey, a plane just flew into the World Trade Center.
We were thinking of the small plane which flew into the Empire State Building
decades ago. You may have seen the pictures: it just stuck in the side of
the building. Most of it was salvageable. That's what we were
expecting when we reached for the remote, and within minutes the second plane
slammed into the second tower. It was the most stunning thing we had ever
seen: huge black clouds billowing over Manhattan, then watching the first
tower collapse, then the second. It was clear to us then that it was an
act of war, and that our lives here would never be the same.
And they haven't been. We've grown used to a level of uncertainty, and
a level of intrusiveness, that previously would have seemed
And while we've managed to not get hit again - a near miracle in a country
this size, where we honestly wouldn't even know where to begin securing things,
much less having a lengthy list of priorities - radical Islamists have hit
Indonesia, Australia, Spain, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, most
recently Russia, and quite a few other countries - more than we can honestly
remember right now.
It's not a conventional war, but it is a global campaign, and it seems like
there are tentacles everywhere, including odd places like the Tri-border area in
South America, where terrorist groups manage to raise a fair amount of money.
The main question an anniversary like this raises is twofold: first, have you
forgotten? And secondly, are you still angry enough?
We certainly haven't. We haven't forgotten seeing people run through the
streets of New York in utter panic, ahead of clouds of debris. We haven't
forgotten the terrible thuds as people chose to jump rather than be
incinerated. We first heard this in a documentary aired on HBO, and didn't
understand the awful noises until the narrator explained them. They were
happening fairly regularly during that sequence.
We also haven't forgotten the broken people who waited in vain to hear from
missing relatives, or the heroic efforts of the police and firefighters.
Nor have we forgotten the courage of the Americans who forced a Washington-bound
jet down in a Pennsylvania field.
We worry, though, that some have forgotten, and while the old saw about
forgetting and repeating history is certainly true, in this case, it's even more
urgent, as Al Qaeda has made clear that they want to do damage on an ever more
As to the second part of the question, we can't speak for anyone else, but
we're still angered by the senseless slaughter of thousands in New York and
Washington. And each place it happens again - Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and most
terribly, the Russian children who were viciously mistreated and slaughtered.
The one bright side is that the nihilism which was once applauded in the
Muslim world is increasingly drawing scorn. The disgust among Muslims
after the slaughter of children in Russia is a really important development.
A Saudi columnist, Khaled Hamed al-Suleiman, wrote that "[t]hey turned today's Islam into something having to do with decapitations, the slashing of throats, abducting innocent civilians and exploding people," he wrote. "They have fixed the image of Muslims in the eyes of the world as barbarians and savages who are not good for anything except slaughtering people. The time has come for Muslims to be the first to come out against those interested in abducting Islam in the same way they abducted innocent children."
Nonie Darwish. an Arab American, points out the difficulties in getting a
fair read on anything when Arab governments by and large dispense
propaganda which suits their purposes. And although we cannot
connect to it at the moment, a group called www.freemuslims.org
has taken a very
strong stand, arguing that Islam is in danger of falling to a cult of
murderous thugs, and that only moderate Muslims can save a great religion.
We don't pretend to have any answers for all of this. We do know that
Islam has an amazing history with some stunning accomplishments along the
While that is pointed to with immense pride, and returning to that seems to
be a goal, doing so will be very difficult without a long-absent tradition of
freedom. We don't mean exactly what we think of as freedom, but there was
a time when minds were allowed to explore and did not fear reprisals, which all
too often is not the case today.
Along with all the other lessons we have taken away from 9/11, we should take
this too: any culture which denies its people freedom will wither into a
small, mean, shadow of itself. We have a hard time imagining it here, but
if we are not zealous about protecting it, even in the face of a shadowy and
relentless enemy, we might win the war and lose ourselves. And that would
be a hollow victory indeed.