American Enterprise Online | 9.11.03
By Alan Dowd

In those somber days after the attacks on Washington and Manhattan, someone affixed a note to a makeshift altar near Ground Zero. It read, poignantly, “On September 11, God was asleep.” A few days later, in typical New York fashion, another anonymous someone scribbled a rejoinder: “No, my friend, we were.”

Indeed, after a dreamlike decade of peace dividends and distractions, September 11 awakened millions of Americans to the dangers of the world and the demands of freedom. In an instant, they were bound together not by the fleeting trauma of an assassination or natural disaster, not even by an attack somewhere “over there,” but by a premeditated assault that altered the very landscape of their country. In fact, for some of them it was the first time they thought of the United States as “their” country.

Given the enormity of the assaults, the fact that September 11 roused us from our slumber and reconnected us with nation and neighbor is not all that surprising. What is surprising is the fact that two years, two wars, and two nation-building missions later, the American people are still committed to the global campaign against terror that the enemy unleashed upon himself (media mantras to the contrary notwithstanding).

An ABC News poll conducted on September 20, 2001, found 2-to-1 support among Americans for what would become the war on terror. Two years later, according to a poll commissioned by the Center for Security Policy, “79.9 percent of Americans agree that force can and should be used against terrorists and their safe havens involved in operations intended to kill Americans.” According to an ABC News poll taken this August, 69 percent of Americans believe “U.S. troops should remain in Iraq until civil order is restored there” and nearly six in ten say the  “war was worth fighting”—this after scores of peacekeeping casualties.

Why is support for this war holding steady?

*First and foremost, the nation is awake. As Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, citizens in democracies are not inclined toward war, because they are focused on personal pursuits and interests. This makes democracies susceptible to surprise and even defeat at the outset of war, especially after a long period of peace. (December 7 and September 11 are graphic illustrations.) But once the people are affected by war and roused “from their peaceful occupations,” according to de Tocqueville, “the same passions that made them attach so much importance to the maintenance of peace will be turned to arms.” The war is thus transformed from an affair of state and statesmen into a national mission, an all-encompassing struggle against the enemy.

Thanks to modern telecommunications, that transformation happened in a single instant on September 11, 2001. It didn’t take weeks or months to rouse us from our slumber. If de Tocqueville’s calculus is accurate, the American people will remain committed to the war until victory is won.

*Which brings us to the second reason support is holding firm: The United States is winning. While the costs of war are high—just look at the hole in the Manhattan skyline or ask the growing number of war widows or consider the spiraling federal deficit—the dismantling of al-Qaeda and its partners and patrons has produced what might be called a war dividend.

According to the State Department’s most recent survey of terrorism, some 3000 al-Qaeda operatives have been detained in a global dragnet. As the President noted last Sunday, nearly two thirds of al-Qaeda’s leadership has been killed or captured. Not coincidentally, there has been a 44 percent drop in attacks conducted by international terrorists. The number of attacks against American targets is down 65 percent. And perhaps most remarkably, there have been no terror attacks on the U.S. homeland since September 11, 2001. 

The medieval Taliban government is gone, so is the monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein. As the always-clever Christopher Hitchens put it, the Afghan campaign was the first time in history anyone had “succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age.” But the war continues in the Philippines, around the Horn of Africa, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier and in pitched battles against the Baathist leftovers and foreign agitators in Iraq. Doubtless, it will dominate the balance of this decade, with major challenges still looming in North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

*Finally, support for the war is holding steady because the American people have done what their government was unable to do before September 11—and what many of their erstwhile allies are unwilling to do even now: In a wordless, instinctive way, they have connected the dots from terrorist groups to terrorist states, and from September 11 to a future deformed by a nuclear- or biological-armed alliance of the two. Given the choice between risking a cataclysm and risking diplomatic isolation, the American people have opted for the latter. And they have concluded, reluctantly, that it is better for U.S. troops to risk their lives on foreign shores than for civilians to be evaporated on American soil.