Eighteen years ago this morning, terrorists representing a violent strain of Islamic fundamentalism hijacked four passenger jets and set them on their deadly courses for what we know today simply as “September 11.”
Today, anyone born that grim day can go to the nearest military recruiting center and sign up to fight that same terrorist group — and all the others that have metastasized out of al-Qaeda. Or you can think of the passage of time this way: This November we will have voters who not only have no memory of that awful day, they weren’t even around when the towers came down.
September 11 was the Pearl Harbor of our generation but led to a very different type of conflict. Eighteen years after Pearl Harbor and World War II was fought and won, the Germans and the Japanese were our friends and the world was moving on. Eighteen years after September 11, the world is still moving on, but the threat that struck us on 2001 remains very much a malevolent force in the world. That fact that we have not suffered another attack on that scale is hardly evidence that the threat has passed, only that certain measures we put into effect (tighter airport screening) have worked. We need only look at trains in Madrid or buses in London or a concert hall in Paris to see that terrorists remain very much on the hunt. Sadly, we had a better understanding of the threat then than we do now. Just six days after the attack, then-President George W. Bush visited a mosque in Washington. He understood quite clearly that the al-Qaeda terrorists no more spoke for all of Islam than certain so-called Christians do when they slaughter innocents in the name of their supposed faith. Yes, that happens, more so than we’d like to think. The suspect in the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh last year quoted the Bible. So did the suspect in the synagogue shooting in California earlier this year. It seems very odd — and tragic — that 18 years after the fact, there is more Islamophobia in the land than there was in the immediate aftermath of September 11 when emotions were understandably higher.
The threats we face from jihadists spring from a very distinct poison that has more to do with their rejection of the contemporary world than with religion. They have simply married a medieval mindset with modern technology — a very dangerous combination. Previous wars had precise beginnings and endings. The “war on terror” as it was once called is a conflict that likely will take generations to play out. The closest parallel we may have is the Cold War, which almost seems a nostalgic memory now. The Soviets didn’t attack us. We didn’t attack them. There were proxy wars aplenty, and lots of “duck and cover” drills, but nothing like September 11. Other historical parallels are the religious wars in Europe. Those are not happy parallels because those went on for centuries before people decided that maybe it wasn’t worth killing others in the name of religion.
Here’s another sobering marker for this 18th anniversary of September 11: That awful day saw a meticulously-planned attack coordinated from afar. In its aftermath, we feared more such attacks — but also a wave of “lone wolf” attacks by those inspired by the jihadists’ nihilist philosophy. And, indeed, we did see some. Since the horrors of 2001, such jihadists have killed 104 people in the United States, according to New America, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C. This includes the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, which some might place in a different category: Was this an example of jihadism, or homophobia, or both? In any case, New America counts it as jihadism, which gives the highest possible death toll to that cause. And yet even with that accounting, more Americans have been killed by far-right extremists, typically white supremacists — 109 in all. In terms of death tolls, then, we have more to fear from some random white guy than we do anyone else.
This is not a recent development, either. According to the figures New America compiled, far-right domestic terrorists have almost always been the biggest threat. From 2001 to 2016, they accounted for the most number of politically-motivated shootings in the United States. It was only the Orlando nightclub shooting — whose motives remain in dispute — that pushed jihadism ahead for awhile. Now, with the mass shooting at the Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last month, far-right terrorists are back in the lead. So where should our vigilance be focused? Both places, of course. But it’s not.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, another middle-of-the-road Washington think tank, says that the number of attacks associated with far-right perpetrators quadrupled from 2016 to 2017. “I would say pretty bluntly we are seeing an almost unprecedented rise in far-right extremism, not just in the U.S. but across Europe and other Western countries including New Zealand and Australia,” Seth G. Jones, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Business Insider. “I’m worried it will get worse before it gets better.” That was last year. The shootings in Christchurch and El Paso were part of the “will get worse before it gets better.”
And yet the Trump administration has cut funding for programs that deal with far-right terrorism. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Department of Homeland Security office dealing with threats from political extremists that had a $24 million budget and 40 employees under President Obama. Under Trump, its budget is less than $3 million with fewer than 10 employees. An analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy institute at the New York University School of Law, found that 85% of the “countering violent extremism” grants Homeland Security has issued “explicitly targeted Muslims and other minority groups, including immigrants and refugees.” This seems to ignore half the problem — perhaps a little more than half.
A thought experiment: What if the shooter at the El Paso Walmart had been an ISIS sympathizer? What if his manifesto had espoused Islamic fundamentalism rather than hatred of Hispanics? What if the shooter at the Pittsburgh synagogue, instead of posting Bible verses online, had shouted “Allahu Akbar” instead? How would our response to those massacres be different?
As we mark 18 years passage from the events that burned September 11 into our history, we can rest assured that somewhere out there in the world, jihadists are still plotting how to do us harm. But so are others, and they might be in line next to us at Walmart.