Remember 2021 — and Remember the Lessons of 9/11

COMMENTARY: The somber 20-year anniversary was met this year with another somber development — the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and its return to the Taliban. And it need not have been.

Members of the Taliban patrol in the back of a pickup truck with a Taliban flag along a street in Kabul on Sept. 30.
Members of the Taliban patrol in the back of a pickup truck with a Taliban flag along a street in Kabul on Sept. 30. (photo: Bulent Kilic / AFP via Getty Images)

This is the time of year when pundits look back to tell us what we should remember about the year past. For many, it’s COVID-19 once again, courtesy of an ongoing pandemic that continues to sicken and kill. 

On the flip side, marching more optimistically toward a Culture of Life for the pro-life community, the big takeaway from 2021 is the unprecedented challenge to abortion, which in the year ahead might witness the reversal of (or at least limits on) Roe v. Wade

For many politicos, 2021 is being assessed through the lens of the first year of the Biden presidency in contrast to the Trump era.

In my view, however, what really stands out from the past year was the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and especially how that somber annual marker this time around was met by another somber development: the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and its return to the Taliban. Long after COVID-19 is gone, this contagion could metastasize for years to come. It could produce another sickness from abroad on the level of another 9/11. 

And it need not have been. 

The Afghanistan fiasco need not have happened, or at the very least should not have proceeded as poorly as it did.

“I wouldn’t have withdrawn,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham on CBS’s Face the Nation amid the chaos, a stark symbol of which was men clinging to airplanes as they took off. “I would have kept the counterterrorism forces on the ground … working with indigenous forces. That’s the best insurance policy against another 9/11.” Said Graham: “The chance of another 9/11 just went through the roof.”

It did indeed.

For the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, the Taliban flag flew over Kabul. That’s not what anyone expected way back in November 2001, when U.S. troops removed the Taliban. 

The Taliban’s return in 2021 was a consequence of removing a small but highly successful contingent of American “counterterrorism” troops, as Graham rightly called them. That highly trained force did a commendable job keeping peace. Prior to the deadly suicide-bomber attack on Aug. 26, which killed nearly 200 people, it had been 18 months since a U.S. combat death in Afghanistan. 

Our troops kept the lid on a volatile situation that had the objective not of “winning a war” but preventing another 9/11. The goal was to reach a level of sustained stability, to deny terrorists a safe haven to plot against America. Our troops would remain there in Afghanistan for decades to come, as they have in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Germany for more than 70 years.

One person who understood that thinking was Arizona Sen. John McCain.

In December 2014, McCain had spoken against President Barack Obama’s appointment of Anthony Blinken as deputy secretary of state, calling Blinken “not only unqualified, but, in fact, in my view, one of the worst selections of a very bad lot that this president has chosen.” 

McCain warned that Blinken’s thinking was “dangerous to America and to the young men and women who are fighting and serving it.” McCain feared that Blinken would push for a total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, leading to a “replay” of what had happened in Iraq when Obama withdrew troops there, creating the devastating conditions for ISIS to rise. That very same ISIS, revived in Afghanistan in 2021, orchestrated the deadly suicide bombing on Aug. 26.

McCain pointed to Afghanistan: “Mr. Blinken said, ‘We’ve been very clear, we’ve been consistent. The war will be concluded by the end of 2014. We have a timetable and that timetable will not change.’ This is why I’m so worried about him being in the position that he’s in because if they stick to that timetable, I am telling my colleagues that we will see the replay of Iraq all over again. We must leave a stabilizing force behind of a few thousand troops or we will see again what we saw in Iraq.”

That was precisely what we had left in place in Afghanistan. The small stabilizing force of a few thousand troops was working, until removed by Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, and by Blinken.

Seven years after McCain’s warning, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden promoted Blinken to secretary of state. Right on cue, Biden’s new secretary of state proceeded to do precisely what McCain warned against.

And thus, by September 2021, with American peacekeepers out and the Taliban back in, Afghanistan is poised to again become what it was on Sept. 11, 2001.

“For the next 20 years, American presidents will be dealing with this catastrophe in Afghanistan,” said Graham. “Terrorists are now in charge of Afghanistan. … We’ve entered into a new deadly chapter.”

We have indeed.

For a reminder of what that deadly chapter looks like, and how these terrorists demean life — contrary to how we value life as Catholics — let’s go back to 9/11 and its plotters.

In February 1998, Osama Bin Laden spoke to his minions from his Taliban-controlled sanctuary in, yes, Afghanistan. That’s where he received protection and safe haven. He ordered his disciples to “kill Americans, wherever and whenever.” This was not an edict against soldiers deployed to battlegrounds, but against any and every American, soldier or civilian, young or old, Marines or babies. 

On 9/11, they targeted them all. All must die.

We vividly remember how Bin Laden viewed life. But we’ve conveniently forgotten about another 9/11 plotter, Zacarias Moussaoui. 

Moussaoui shared his views on human life on March 23, 2006. He conveyed them to U.S. attorney Robert Spencer and a jury while on trial for his crimes against humanity. 

“You told the jury that you have no regret for your part in any of this?” Spencer said to Moussaoui, who conceded none. “I just wish it will happen on the 12th, the 13th, the 14th, the 15th, the 16th, the 17th, and I can go on and on,” said Moussaoui. “There is no remorse for justice.”

Moussaoui told Spencer that he enjoyed listening to the chilling testimony from Pentagon victims. It made him smile: “I would have even laughed if I didn’t know that I would be kicked out of the court.” Asked Spencer: “You enjoyed seeing the Pentagon on fire?” Moussaoui replied: “My pleasure.”

When asked his reaction to the harrowing testimony of Lt. Col. John Thurman describing how he crawled out of the building with his face against the floor to save his life, Moussaoui sniffed, “He was pathetic. I was regretful he didn’t die.” Asked about those who did die, Moussaoui celebrated: “Make my day.”

For the likes of Moussaoui, if only every day could be like 9/11. An endless stream of days of death.

“Like it to all happen again, right?” Spencer asked Moussaoui, who affirmed: “Every day.”

In contrast, a friend and colleague of mine, former Bush Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, recalled how the victims of 9/11 were remembered by their fellow Americans, right down to their scarcest physical remains. He noted that only 1,100 sets of remains were found of the 2,823 people who perished under the rubble of the World Trade Center buildings. Most were pulverized. 

Among those 1,100, McNulty noted that every time remains were found in the subsequent weeks by personnel onsite, the entire place paused and stood in order, heads bowed, silent, as the remains were slowly carried away from Ground Zero. The remains were precious because the people were precious.

The contrast between how each side respects the sanctity and dignity of human life could not have been clearer.

Every year, on Sept. 11, we remember the dead and pray for their families. We don’t seek violent deaths as suicide “martyrs” on the field of battle for a God that we believe wants us to kill. Our God is the Author of Life. We plead for life, not death. 

That’s the difference between our creed and theirs. To a radical Islamist like Moussaoui, as well as Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts, God is the master of the sword, not of the cross — not of love and mercy but of their distorted view of “justice.”

Hopefully this nation will continue to abide by the Judeo-Christian values that teach respect for every human being made in the image of the Creator. This is what has long made America and the West different. Let’s pray that it remains so.

And let us also pray that the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan this past year does not bring us another tragedy akin to what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. Time will tell.

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