We were attacked 18 years ago by Islamic terrorists. They attacked us — our country — because they hate our way of life and our freedoms. Imagine what our lives would be like if we were stripped of our freedoms. What if we could no longer speak our minds, protest or vote? We should take advantage of these freedoms and lean into them.
Many of us remember where we were on the day the attack happened. I was working out and noticed a plane flying into a building on a muted television. To my cursory view, it looked like a small private plane. It was not until a few minutes later that I realized it belonged to a commercial airline.
I rushed home, where I sat glued to the television coverage, along with my 2-year-old daughter and 6-week-old son. Eventually, I learned that the plane was American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles, a Boeing 767 that had been taken over by five hijackers who deliberately flew the plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center. The south tower was hit 17 minutes later by United Airlines Flight 175. The Pentagon was hit 30 minutes later. The fourth plane, whose passengers stormed the hijackers, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.
The perpetrators were 19 al-Qaida operatives led by Osama bin Laden. According to an article written by Scott Stewart for Stratfor Worldwide: “This was a watershed moment for the jihadist movement, as never before had a terrorist group pulled off such a spectacular attack. Al Qaeda quickly became seen as a uniquely powerful force, with its name -- and bin Laden’s -- instantly becoming known around the world.”
It is important to understand that, while this was a terrorist attack, terrorism is a tactic used by people and groups to achieve their political, social or religious goals. It is not in itself a belief system.
The belief system of jihadism that led to the attack is founded in Islamism, as articulated by former diplomat Christian Whiton. In his 2013 book, “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War,” he lays out a clear distinction between Islam and Islamism: “The former is a religion of nearly a quarter of the world’s population; the latter is a political ideology whose central tenet is unifying government and Islam and is advocated by a small subset of Muslims.”
According to Whiton, “Successful political warfare against this ideology could involve three broad steps: First, we should tell the truth about radical Islam and adopt a policy of opposing Islamism globally. ... Being honest about this threat is not anti-Muslim. In fact, political warfare ideally would involve getting Muslims to turn decisively against the Islamists.
“Second, we need to focus on nonviolently undermining Islamist governments like Iran’s. While ISIS may earn headlines, Iran’s theocracy has tentacles throughout the Middle East and may soon be armed with nuclear weapons.
“Third, we should work with allies to suppress radical Islam culturally. ...We should support institutions that give power to modern Muslims who believe in separating mosque and state.”
Unfortunately, we are still working on battling jihadism today.
While the 9/11 attacks created global awareness, control of the various jihadist groups is primarily local and geographically distributed. Stewart calls this a glocal (global and local) network.
This glocal structure “has also benefited the Islamic State and al Qaeda by providing a great degree of durability and resilience,” says Stewart. “If jihadism was indeed managed by a single hierarchical institution, then taking out its core leadership could help to destroy it. But this decentralized franchise model instead helps insulate local groups from damage incurred by the upper echelons of the jihadist movement.”
In the years since the attacks, we have rebuilt buildings and created monuments to those who died, but our most important work is to rebuild our political culture, which must be done on the individual level, not at the national level. “Today’s political culture is all about grievance,” I wrote in “Our Broken America: Why Both Sides Need to Stop Ranting and Start Listening.” “If you listen to politicians’ talk, you’ll see that they tend to pit one group against another. This will not, cannot, lead to long-term success. Instead, it leads to internal strife, more ranting and raving.”
While the idea of giving up grievances might seem out of reach, I believe we can achieve whatever we decide to achieve. But to do so, I say we must “choose gratitude over grievance, create a positive national narrative and work together to solve real problems.”
It is up to each of us to work to maintain our freedoms every day. If we don’t, the jihadists will eventually succeed.