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Breaking Our Vow to Sept. 11 Victims?

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

This week it will be eight years since I fled my office and rushed down to Lower Manhattan. Two planes had hit the World Trade Center -- I had seen that on television -- and I jumped on the subway, which, remarkably, was running and then, when I could go no further, went the rest of the way on the run. Suddenly, I heard a crack -- a huge sound that contained the roar of thunder and the snap of lightning -- and the person next to me said, "They're scrambling jets," but the sky was empty and I knew that one of the towers had collapsed. I said to myself, "We'll get you, you bastards," but I was wrong. We haven't.

It has been eight years, two terms of Bush moralism and the beginning of Obama pragmatism, and the man who ordered the killing of Americans in Lower Manhattan and the Pentagon and in the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania is still in his lair. He has become a joke on late-night television -- the murderer of Americans as a stock character, a punch line: Heard this one about Osama bin Laden?

Bin Laden must laugh. He certainly did on that tape when he explained to his colleagues how the Twin Towers had come down and the infidels had died. He chuckled and so did the others in the room. But I was near Ground Zero that day, picking up scraps of paper, the detritus of lives so busy with the mundane -- a bill for private-school tuition, for instance -- and I wanted then, as I do now, revenge for what happened. Bring me the head of Osama bin Laden.

That revenge would be my first thought surprised me even then. I am not that sort of person. Revenge does not seem a fit subject for a column, or a columnist. When we talk about Afghanistan, whether to stay or go, whether to hold the cards we now have or double down, we reach for all sorts of Metternichian reasons -- but never something as basic, as raw, as revenge. The word smacks of a primitive blood lust. It is revolting.

And yet revenge also suggests a proper concern for the dead. The people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, cannot simply be dismissed, erased -- as if they had not been killed in a huge crime. It's not just that bin Laden is still at large. So are the Taliban members who sheltered him and stayed with him after Sept. 11. This should not be complicated: The killers of Americans ought to pay for what they've done. It is good foreign policy.

I thought of the dead, too, when Scotland freed Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the man held responsible for blowing up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. Inevitably, the focus of attention was on the bereaved, many of whom lost children returning from a European vacation. But theirs is not the only loss. The dead, after all, lost everything they had -- all that promise, all those possibilities, all that love, all that success and, yes, all that pain and failure and heartache, too. I imagine them at the flash moment of the explosion and I believe they do not want me to forget.

It is the same with John Demjanjuk, who was deported to Germany in May for crimes allegedly committed 65 years ago as a Nazi concentration camp guard. The man is 89 and you are entitled to ask when enough is enough. But then you also have to ask yourself about his alleged victims and wonder if we can -- if we ever can -- tell them that their time has passed . . . and their deaths no longer matter.

There are good reasons to remain in Afghanistan. There are also reasons to get out. These things are never easy. It would be hard to turn our backs on Afghan progressives and women and all the girls who would never get an education. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would make common cause with extremist elements in Pakistan, both civilian and military. The stakes increase then -- all those nukes, not only in Pakistan but in edgy India as well. Leaving Afghanistan has the feel of whistling in the dark. It's as frightening as staying.

But when we go -- if we go -- we will have to acknowledge that we have broken our vow not only to Afghans who have supported us -- the Taliban, unlike us, will get its revenge -- but also with the dead of Sept. 11, 2001. We meant well.

Sorry.

cohenr@washpost.com


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