If there’s one meme that deserves a swift burial, it’s the notion that the “lessons of September 11th” demonstrate clearly the strategy we need to take. Rice Grad, writing at Southern Appeal, illustrates the type of argument:
Cheney was saying that if we get hit again, then the danger is that Kerry will treat the terrorist attack as a law enforcement matter. That is, Kerry shows signs that he has not learned the lessons of September 11th. He is still in pre-9/11 mode, whereas Bush sees the matter as an act of war, not a mere criminal act.
The mode of thinking represented here is insidious — if for no other reason than actual events have demonstrated the need for both a military and “law enforcement” (more specifically, investigative) capability in order to disrupt, defeat, and dismantle terrorist cells. 12 suspects were arrested in the UK during August, following the tipoff from Noor Khan and some dedicated police work. Earlier in the year, UK police arrested 8 suspects and seized half a ton of fertilizer, again through police work informed by intelligence data.
On the other hand, when you’re combing the mountainous Tora Bora and tribal regions of adjacent Pakistan, the police aren’t the solution, and even the FBI and CIA are of limited help. You need military manpower, on the ground and in the air. To secure Afghanistan, you need troops. Lack of troop strength, in fact, is leading to the resurgence of the Taliban in the west and south, and loss of control for the new government.
So I’m not quite sure what is meant when people — especially otherwise intelligent, informed people — refer to the “lessons of 9/11” and manage to dichotomize our approach so easily. The presidential campaigns dichotomize issues because they seek to maximize the separation between the candidates; this is clearly at play in Cheney’s words:
“It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States,” Cheney said.
Nor is Senator Kerry entirely innocent of painting too simplistic a picture.
But it worries me that the meme is still spreading — beyond the campaigns that employ it as tactic, beyond the early anger at being attacked, and into general usage. Today, three years later, you’d expect a bit more analysis, more critical thinking about what the “lessons of 9/11” truly are. Rice Grad, writing in the passage quoted above, says with approval that Bush sees the matter as an “act of war.” And we’ve all heard the President and his team use those terms.
But three years later, I’m still not sure that “war on terror” is an accurate way to describe our present situation. We certainly have been attacked, and we certainly have attacked al-Qaeda leaders and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the nation of Iraq in return. But we are, demonstrably, also engaged in an intelligence and investigative effort, spanning national and local polices, to track and apprehend potential attackers. And those avenues, albeit less noticeable, are producing results — as evidenced by arrests around the world.
The real lesson of 9/11 is that it’s too early, and we’re too deeply involved, to be able to say conclusively which strategies and tactics will turn out to be the best. It’s early days in a diffuse global insurgency like this, and the evidence suggests that both “law enforcement” and military action are appropriate tools in their own contexts. Tactics and methods we haven’t tried yet, and technologies possibly yet to be invented, may aid in our efforts. Experimentation will be the norm, not the exception, as we try everything in the playbook to stop, destroy, or apprehend attackers before they strike.
And I haven’t heard either candidate truly suggest otherwise. Using the “lessons of 9/11” and “law enforcement” memes as a way to judge one’s choice of Presidential candidate is quite simply misguided. There will be little, if any, real difference on the ground in the methods used by either candidate should they win the White House in the fall. As a country, we are far better off judging our affinity with the candidates based on domestic policy and the probability of Supreme Court nominations, than we are chasing phantom differences in the ability of either candidate to be Commander-in-Chief.