PHILADELPHIA (BP)–All four of the plane crashes on Sept. 11 occurred in the northeastern United States, where I live. According to the latest Newsweek poll, a massive two-thirds of my neighbors feel “less safe” than they did before that day.
I beg to disagree. This particular American now feels more secure. The reason? Those terrible events alerted my fellow citizens to the fact that militant Islam is engaged in fighting a war on the United States.
That war began, not as people seem to think, in September 2001 but in February 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran. Already by November 1979, Khomeini had seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held nearly 60 captives for 444 days. Eight American soldiers (the first casualties in this war) died in the failed U.S. rescue attempt in 1980.
The Islamists’ initial major act of violence against Americans, killing 63, took place in 1983 when they attacked the U.S. embassy in Beirut. As the analyst David Makovsky notes, Washington “beat a hasty exit, and Islamic militants saw this as a vindication that suicide bombing was … deadly effective.” Then followed a rapid sequence of attacks on Americans in Lebanon (the embassy a second time, a Marine barracks, airline passengers, university presidents), plus other Middle Eastern countries.
This assault persisted for the next 18 years. Prominent targets included American soldiers in Saudi Arabia (twice), two embassies in East Africa and a warship in Yemen. Further afield, Islamists killed Americans in Israel, Pakistan, Kashmir and the Philippines.
Attacks on U.S. soil began with the 1980 murder of an anti-Khomeini Iranian resident in the Washington, D.C., area. Subsequent killings included a Muslim religious figure in Tucson, Ariz., a Jewish leader in New York City and CIA employees waiting in their cars to enter the agency headquarters. A rash of murders took place at New York landmarks — the World Trade Center, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building.
Washington threatened retribution (“You can run but you can’t hide”) for attacks against Americans, but hardly ever carried through. Rather, the preferred U.S. response was to hunker down behind concrete barriers, thick walls and security checks. Intelligence and defense capabilities remained inadequate. Actual perpetrators were sometimes caught and tried in court, but the apparatus that trained and dispatched them remained unscathed.
The sad fact is, 22 years and 600 dead did not get the country’s attention. Americans blithely ignored those specialists on militant Islam and terrorism who pleaded for vigilance and warned of horrors to come. This national obliviousness explains how Americans found themselves so embarrassingly unprepared for the events of Sept. 11. “Scandal” is how one Israeli pilot correctly describes the military’s inability to protect the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.
Nearly 7,000 deaths in one day did, at least, finally awaken the country.
And I feel safer now, as the FBI is engaged in the largest operation in its history, armed marshals will again be flying on U.S. aircraft and the immigration service has placed foreign students under increased scrutiny. I feel safer when Islamist organizations are exposed, illicit money channels closed down and immigration regulations reviewed. The amassing of American forces near Iraq and Afghanistan cheers me. The newfound alarm is healthy, the sense of solidarity heartening, the resolve is encouraging.
But will it last? Are Americans truly ready to sacrifice liberties and lives to prosecute seriously the war against militant Islam? I worry about U.S. constancy and purpose.
One thing is very sure: Should the thousands of deaths of fellow citizens not inspire Americans to extirpate the threat of militant Islam, then this will be back, and more dangerous next time. September’s carnage was limited to the destruction of things crashing into each other, but future Islamist attacks are likely to involve weapons of mass destruction. Should that happen, the death toll could be in the millions, not the thousands.
So, let this warning be clear: Militant Islam seeks to destroy the United States (as well as Europe, Israel and many other societies) as presently constituted. Islamists have shown resolve, tenacity and tactical brilliance. Unless Westerners take this threat very much to heart, Islamists will be back, dispensing far worse punishments.
Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, is author of numerous books on the troubled region. His website is DanielPipes.org.