Whenever I remember September 11th, two questions always spring to mind. Did we really learn our lessons? And do we still deserve our freedom? It’s easy enough to answer both questions with a resounding “yes.” You could reasonably point to the quantum growth of the nation’s intelligence establishment, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and, most of all, the sacrifices of our soldiers and veterans in the endless wars of 9/11.
But as we mark the 15th year since our great national tragedy, it increasingly seems like it must have happened in a different time to a different people, possibly in a much different country. Even worse, we seldom recognize that our future freedom is increasingly doubtful.
Why that pessimism? As an NBC News military analyst, I not only reported the events on both sides of 9/11 but confidently predicted to the television audience that our Second Pearl Harbor would swiftly result in a declaration of war. Surely now, with three thousand of our countrymen dead and every reason to fear even worse attacks, the American people would be called to the colors and mobilized for war. Of course, none of my self-assured predictions came true.
Instead we embraced the National Sidestep that has bedeviled us ever since. We reorganized our intelligence community – but never fired anyone for failing to sound the alarm as threats grew worse. We reorganized our homeland security establishment but the only significant effect of 9/11 became longer waiting lines at airports. The reason: our government found intrusive screening a more politically correct solution than accurate profiling driven by better intelligence. And instead of mobilizing for war, Americans quickly returned to business as usual, instead drafting the Reserves. Together with our small, professional military composed of Other People’s Kids, we sent our over-stretched soldiers and Marines to the combat zones three and four times. Want to know the root cause of PTSD? Then try looking in the mirror because fewer than one percent of Americans now serve in uniform.
It is no wonder that the other 99% of us ignore the steady erosion of our own security until it’s too late. (You never miss oxygen either until it’s suddenly not there.) We pay far more attention to insuring the rights of transgender soldiers than to the more urgent question of whether we have adequate numbers of soldiers, gay or straight. Regardless of their gender or sexual preference, will there be enough of them to protect us should push come to shove? Think I’m kidding? Our Army today is at its lowest level since before World War II while our Air Force is smaller and older than it has ever been.
Given our recent track record, which of our enemies now have reason to fear American military might? While we console ourselves with the selective assassination of our drone strikes, have you noticed that enemies from Russia to Iran and from China to North Korea are becoming bolder and bolder? That they are buzzing our ships, harassing our aircraft and signaling in many ways a single unmistakable message: Hey, we can take these guys!
You can hardly blame them for drawing such potentially fateful assessments. President Obama cannot even bring himself to utter the dread words “Islamic extremism.” Hillary Clinton skates away from an indictment for treasonous carelessness with our most precious national security secrets. Colin Kaepernick, biracial child of white privilege and second-string quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, won’t even stand up for the National Anthem. But rather than being slimed as a woefully ungrateful hypocrite, he is lionized by many, including the aforementioned President Obama. Does anyone even remember that this flag and that Anthem inspired Union troops as they fought the Civil War, paying a fearful price in blood to free the forebears of Messrs. Obama and Kaepernick?
A profound knowledge of his own culture allowed Spanish philosopher George Santayana to warn that “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.” Knowing precisely what had prompted their rise from an obscure Italian city-state, the Romans had a similar belief-system: Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you would have peace, then prepare for war.” Ponder those timeless insights on September 11th – but remember them in early November as well.