My youngest son was born a little over two months after the jihadist terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. With each passing year, as he gets taller and his infancy becomes a dimmer memory, I’m reminded how in the passage of time the power of those horrible events fades. Aside from those who lost family and loved ones for whom the pain is ever present, it is hard to summon up the emotional punch those days leveled, no matter how many films we see or books we read about those events. What allows us to recover from grief also makes it hard to retain fully the impact of dramatic events. The lessons attached to those events get blurry with time as well. For my son, but figuratively for us all, it seems a lifetime ago.
It is distressing when we observe the lethargy and unseriousness with which we address national security. Eleven years after 9/11 we learn the president skips half of his intelligence briefings. Congress and the president have set in motion national security cuts that longtime Democrat, Defense Secretary Leo Panetta, has dubbed “devastating.” We learn that the White House came up with the sequestration gimmick to try to force Republicans to raise taxes; there is no sign the president will intervene in sufficient time to halt substantial layoffs in the defense industry. Is this the same nation that rallied to the defense of the West? It’s hard to believe sometimes.
We are light-years away from the Bush administration, to be sure, when George W. Bush “held his intelligence meeting six days a week, no exceptions — usually with the vice president, the White House chief of staff, the national security adviser, the director of National Intelligence, or their deputies, and CIA briefers in attendance. Once a week, he held an expanded Homeland Security briefing that included the Homeland Security adviser, the FBI director and other homeland security officials.” Now the administration leaks national security secrets again and again, putting spin and ego above the highest obligation, to protect fellow countrymen.
Maybe everything is safe and sound these days. Perhaps the threats are largely gone, the secrets aren’t that important and the world does not need such a robust American presence. But world events in Syria, Iran and around the globe suggest that is not the case. I can’t help but worry whether the current complacency, even the indifference, about national security is foolishness we will deeply regret.
The passage of time and a uniquely peevish president who finds it necessary to berate his predecessor (still!) have also dimmed the recollection of the extraordinary work of the president and his entire administration during a time when it was widely believed we would be hit again by jihadists. Bush, we all (including him!) grew fond of saying, was often at war with the English language. But he was at his finest in a series of eloquent and profound addresses that comforted and directed a nation to undertake obligations that only the United States could shoulder.
When he addressed the nation on Sept. 14 in the National Cathedral, we were “in the middle hour of our grief,” but the president showed steady resolve and asked the country to do so as well: “Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history, but our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil. War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger.” He continued, “This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance and love have no end, and the Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn. It is said that adversity introduces us to ourselves. This is true of a nation as well. In this trial, we have been reminded and the world has seen that our fellow Americans are generous and kind, resourceful and brave.” We responded to great evil with uncommon decency.
Are we capable of showing those qualities only in time of tragedy and at the onset of war? In the midst of a too-often petty and vindicative campaign in which gaffes and slurs take the place of eloquence and insight, can we find a sense of purpose and unity to do hard things?
The annual commemoration of 9/11 should induce a level of sobriety about our country and sense of duty that allows us to do big and important things. And, yes, it reminds us that America must always be in the lead at the front, to confront individuals and nations, which would, unchecked, perpetuate great evil.