Sept. 11, 2005 -- the fourth anniversary of the start of the war. That is, if you believe it's a ''war'' A lot of people didn't want to, even in those first days.
About a week after, one of my local radio stations held a fund-raiser and this is how their trailer for it opened. Cue the terminal-illness-movie-of-the-week soupy piano. Then:
''After the tragic events of Sept. 11 . . .''
And, by the time I'd heard it half-a-dozen times, I retuned the dial and never listened to the station again.
It wasn't a "tragic event" or even one of a series of unfortunate events. It was an "attack," an "act of war." I sat at the lunch counter with a guy who'd tuned out the same station on the grounds that "I never heard my grampa talk about 'the tragedy of Pearl Harbor.' " But, consciously or otherwise, a serious effort was under way to transform the nature of the event, to soften it into a touchy-feely, huggy-weepy one-off. As I wrote last year: "The president believes there's a war on. The Dems think 9/11 is like the 1998 ice storm or a Florida hurricane -- just one of those things."
I didn't know the half of it. If an act of war is like a hurricane -- freak of nature, get over it -- it's evidently no great leap to believe that a hurricane is an act of war. Katrina was thus "allowed" to happen because Bush "hates black people." The Army Corps of Engineers was instructed to blow up New Orleans' 17th Street levee so that the flood would kill the poor people rather than destroy the valuable tourist real estate.
Whatever. As part of their ongoing post-9/11 convergence, the left now talks about Bush the way the wackier Islamists talk about Jews. I thought the Australian imam who warned Muslims the other week to lay off the bananas because the Zionists are putting poison in them was pretty loopy. But is he really any more bananas than folks who think Bush is behind the hurricane? Bush is apparently no longer the citizen-president of a functioning republic, but a 21st century King Canute expected to go sit by the shore and repel the waters as they attempt to make landfall. Instead, he and Cheney hatched up the whole hurricane thing in the Halliburton research labs to distract attention from their right-wing Supreme Court nominee . . .
On this fourth anniversary we are in a bizarre situation: The war is being won -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, the broader Middle East and many other places where America has changed the conditions on the ground in its favor. But at home the war about the war is being lost. When the media look at those Bush approval ratings -- currently hovering around 40 percent -- they carelessly assume the 60 percent is some unified Kerry-Hillary-Cindy bloc.
It's not. It undoubtedly includes people who are enthusiastic for whacking America's enemies, but who don't quite get the point of this somewhat desultory listless phase. If the "war" is now a push for democratization and liberalization in Middle East dictatorships, that's a worthy cause but not one sufficiently primal to keep the attention of the American people. You'd have had the same problem in the Second World War if four years after Pearl Harbor we were postponing D-Day in order to nation-build in the Solomon Islands.
Four years ago, I thought the "war on terror" was a viable concept. To those on the right who scoffed that you can't declare war on a technique, I pointed out that Britain's Royal Navy fought wars against slavery and piracy and were largely successful. Of course, since then we've had the shabby habit of presidents declaring a "war on drugs" and a "war on poverty" and, with hindsight, that corruption of language has allowed Americans to slip the war on terror into the same category -- not a war in the sense that a war on Fiji or Belgium is a war, but just one of those vaguely ineffectual aspirational things that don't really impinge on you that much except for the odd pointless gesture -- like the shoe-removing ritual before you board a flight at Poughkeepsie. The "war on terror" label has outlived whatever usefulness it had.
And, as the years go by, it becomes clearer that the war aspects -- the attacks in New York, Washington, Bali, Madrid, Istanbul, London -- are really spasmodic flashes of a much more elusive enemy. Although Islamism is the first truly global terrorist insurgency, it shares more similarities with conventional terror movements -- the IRA or the Basque separatists -- than many of us thought four years ago. Terror groups persist because of a lack of confidence on the part of their targets: the IRA, for example, calculated correctly that the British had the capability to smash them totally but not the will. So they knew that while they could never win militarily, they also could never be defeated. That's what the Islamists have bet.
Only a tiny minority of Muslims want to be suicide bombers, and only a slightly larger minority want actively to provide support networks for suicide bombers, but big majorities of Muslims support almost all the terrorists' strategic goals: For example, according to a recent poll, over 60 percent of British Muslims want to live under sharia in the United Kingdom. That's a "moderate" Westernized Muslim: He wants stoning for adultery to be introduced in Liverpool, but he's a "moderate" because it's not such a priority that he's prepared to fly a plane into a skyscraper.
As with IRA killers and the broader Irish nationalist population, these shared aims provide a large comfort zone in which terror networks can operate. And it enables the non-violent lobby groups to use the terrorists -- or the threat of terrorists -- as part of a good cop/bad cop routine. Thus, the Islamic lobby groups pressure governments to make concessions to them rather than to the terrorists -- even though both elements share the same aims. You can pluck out news items at random: In London, a religious "hate crimes" law that makes honest discussion of Islam even more difficult; in Ontario, the moves toward sharia courts for Muslim community disputes; in Seattle, the introduction of gender-separate, Muslim-only swimming sessions in municipal pools. The 9/11 terrorists were in favor of all these things.
So four years on we're winning in the Middle East and Central Asia, floundering in Europe and North America. War is hell, but a war that half the country refuses to recognize as such staggers on as a very contemporary kind of purgatory.