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A Time of Heroes

Advance copy from the September 19, 2011 issue.

7:30 PM, Sep 9, 2011 • By PAUL WOLFOWITZ
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This tenth anniversary of that grim September day when so many innocent people died in the most horrible fashion is a time to mourn their loss, as well as the thousands who have been lost in the past 10 years of the war against global terrorists, and to share in the grief of the loved ones they left behind. 

Marines

U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, 2001

It is also an occasion to give thanks for the heroism of so many on that day whose courage prevented the deaths of thousands more. There were the New York firefighters and police who rushed into the burning buildings to rescue people, Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers on Flight 93 who brought down that plane before it could reach Washington, Richard Rescorla, whose foresight and bravery may well have saved thousands, and scores of others whose sacrifices saved lives. 

We also have reason to be thankful for the heroism of the brave Americans​—​and their allies from many different countries, including from Afghanistan and Iraq​—​who have been fighting the war on terror for the past 10 years. More than 1,700 Americans have lost their lives in Afghanistan and more than 4,400 in Iraq. Many more have suffered grievous wounds. But we have not been fighting alone. Afghans and Iraqis fighting for their countries have borne the greatest burden. Although the numbers are less precise, more than 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed since 2003 and more than 5,500 Afghans in just the last four years. More than 300 other coalition members have been killed in Iraq and almost 1,000 in Afghanistan, the largest share coming from our British allies, who have suffered 559 deaths. Those numbers represent individual tragedies but also individual bravery for which we all should give thanks.

One way to honor those dead is to recognize what they accomplished. Along with the mourning and thanksgiving, there is also much to celebrate on this anniversary. Three successes stand out as particularly important.

First is the fact that there have been no further successful attacks on the United States. No one predicted this outcome 10 years ago. Indeed, there was every reason to expect additional large-scale attacks, and we know that the terrorists were planning for them. They were stopped thanks to a massive effort by the United States, with a great deal of support from others, to go on the offensive against the terrorists and to treat this fight as a matter of national security and not just law enforcement.

Until September 11, terrorism was treated in the framework of law enforcement. Captured terrorists were treated as defendants awaiting prosecution, not as potential sources of intelligence about future plots. States that supported terrorism might be the object of retaliatory strikes, as with Libya in 1986 or Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998, or subjected to restrictions on commercial transactions. But there was no serious effort to get them out of the terrorism business entirely. Even Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and close relative and associate of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who went on to mastermind the attacks of 9/11, was read his Miranda rights and never seriously questioned about what he might know of future terrorist plans.

That changed fundamentally after 9/11. One can debate whether all the individual decisions taken under that new approach were necessary, but it is impossible to argue that we could have achieved the success we have so far without treating terrorists not just as criminals but as enemies.

Beyond simply preventing additional attacks, our second big success has been against al Qaeda itself. Although still a force to be reckoned with, it is a shadow of its former self, with Osama bin Laden dead, many of its other senior leaders dead or captured, its sanctuary in Afghanistan gone, and its attempt to defeat the United States in Iraq a strategic failure.

The third success we have occasion to celebrate is that state support for terrorism is in retreat. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are no longer sponsors of terrorism​—​although there are groups that would like to return them to that status. We can hope that Syrians will soon topple the terror-sponsoring Assad regime. That would still leave serious dangers from North Korea, which possesses nuclear weapons, and from Iran, which aspires to get them. But it is significant progress. 

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