There was no reason to think, as we stirred from our beds three years ago this morning, that the day would be anything but ordinary. In fact, that summer of 2001 had been almost painfully mundane.
Stem-cell research was briefly a hot topic, but stem cells can fill only so many newscasts and newspaper pages. When that petered out, the media glommed onto a few shark attacks and the doings of Gary Condit, an obscure California congressman whose former intern had disappeared that spring in Washington.
Here in the Valley we focused on a great Diamondbacks team as it raced for the playoffs. So we turned on our TVs that morning rightly expecting the usual patter of news-weather-sports. But we didn’t get that. Instead we found ourselves lurching into a dark and awful new universe. We were Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole — destination, Terrorland.
Truth be told, we’d already been there for years, without wanting to admit it. For three decades, beginning at least with the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972 and then through untold numbers of bombings, hijackings, kidnappings, shootings and other atrocities, we had marched through valleys of peril. Islamists had bombed the World Trade Center in February 1993. And when the Murrah Federal Building blew up in Oklahoma City in 1995, suspicion immediately and logically turned in their direction.
As it turned out, Oklahoma City was one of the few terrorist acts in recent memory that was not perpetrated by professed disciples of Mohammed. So great was the threat of terrorism before Sept. 11, 2001, that commissions already had been formed, studies conducted, warnings issued and largely ignored. But nobody — nobody — was prepared for the deadly aerial choreography that took nearly 3,000 lives that morning. Since then, the national agenda has focused on little else.
Yes, we go through our little two-steps involving Medicare drug benefits and No Child Left Behind and throwing arch-criminals like Martha Stewart in jail. But those are mere sideshows in Terrorland. Terror hovers over all of them, a gathering cloud of dread. Gathering, we say, because no one really believes Sept. 11, 2001, was the climax. It may rather have been a prelude, akin to the single aerial bomb that kicks off a holiday fireworks show. It is all but certain that if they can, the terrorists will yet strike with far worse.
Russian President Vladimir Putin tacitly admitted this in recent days when at long last he ordered troops to guard his country’s aging and notoriously insecure nuclear weapons facilities. His action, of course, is no guarantee that some 60 years after the nuclear genie slipped its bottle, terrorists haven’t already tapped into its lethal magic.
Knocking the terrorists off their game is a tall order because they always have the ball. They are always on the offensive. President Bush claims to have done a good job at thwarting them, pointing out that three years have passed since the last strike on U.S. soil. But that is scant comfort, given the 8 1/2 years that elapsed between attacks on the World Trade Center. This enemy is a patient one. So the last thing we need is complacency.
And frankly, the second-last thing we need is to keep misidentifying the threat. This is not, as Bush has so often called it, a "War on Terror." Terror is only the weapon — and radical Islam is the arm that wields it. No leading American politician has yet spoken frankly on this crucial point. Why a world religion with some 1 billion mostly peaceful adherents has become the spawning bed of such evil is a matter of great debate. Some blame the religion itself, noting that Mohammed was no pacifist. Others blame miserable social and economic conditions in the Middle East. Others, more perversely, blame Israel for daring to exist, a tiny nation creating such an insufferable affront to Muslims that innocent people the world over must be slaughtered in recompense.
Further, the terrorists’ very aims are at issue. Some say the terrorists hate freedom and modernity and want to impose a worldwide Taliban-style theocracy. Others say they only seek a change in Western political and economic policies that afflict the Muslim world. To their credit, some Islamic leaders and journalists began to stir after last week’s outrage in Russia. They are bravely, if far too belatedly, asking what about their religion is causing this and what responsible Muslims can do about it.
And therein lies the only obvious key to ending this scourge. If indeed it is Islam that incubates these monsters, only Islam can stop the process. But only if it wants to, and only if it tries — encouraged, perhaps, by incentives and disincentives from the greater civilized world. Until that happens, the long twilight struggle against radical Islamic terrorists must continue apace, lest Sept. 11, 2001 someday prove the least of our nightmares.