Remembering What and Why: Patriot Day 2009

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Remembering What and Why: Patriot Day 2009


September 11, 2009

The left pocket of my trousers is usually empty.  This was not always the case.  Ever since high school my left trousers pocket held a small Swiss Army knife, an extremely useful tool that I miss.  Years of habit loaded it into my pants every morning—including days I was flying.  After September 11, 2001, I gave enough away to the TSA workers at Dulles Airport that I quit carrying a knife altogether.

As a result, every time I need a knife whether it's to open a package or trim a broken fingernail, this little inconvenience reminds me of four airplanes highjacked by Islamic terrorists on a beautiful and clear September morning. 

We kept calling the events of September 11, 2001, a "tragedy," apparently placing them in the same category as accidental plane crashes.  While the attacks certainly resulted in great tragedy, the language of tragedy is inaccurate and unhelpful as a way of understanding what happened.  As one of my colleagues said at the time, if a child runs out in front of a car while chasing a ball and accidently gets hit, it's a tragedy.  But if a driver sees a child in the street and speeds up in order to run her over, it's not a tragedy; it's murder.  Mohamed Atta and the other 9/11 attackers planned and accomplished murder and mayhem.

And they planned and accomplished that murder and mayhem for religious reasons.  They were engaged in jihad.  Richard John Neuhaus succinctly defines jihadism as "the doctrine that it is the duty of Muslims to force the world's submission to Allah by any means necessary." 

As Mary Habeck of John Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies writes in her book Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror:

To see why jihadis declared war on the United States and tried to kill as many Americans as possible, we must be willing to listen to their own explanations.  To do otherwise is to impose a Western interpretation on the extremists, in effect to listen to ourselves rather than them.

How do the jihadis explain their actions?  They say that they are committed to the destruction of the entire secular world because they believe this is a necessary first step to create an Islamic utopia on earth.

Habeck's book catalogues radical Islamic thought by quoting the sources and thus establishing the truth of these claims in the face of those who want to blame poverty or a poor education for the deadly violence.

In her April 2006 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Habeck carefully distinguished between Islamists, jihadists, and the vast majority of Muslims:

Today only about 20 percent of the Islamic world follows some version of Islamism, which means that 80 percent are moderate or traditional Muslims who disagree profoundly with this vision of Islam. The main characteristic of Islamism is a belief that Islam must have political power and state control in order to be correctly implemented.  Jihadism is the radical version of Islamism which has decided that only violence will allow them to create the perfect Islamic state.

Of course, on this seventh anniversary of the jihadist attacks, jihadism and Islamism are now words that are officially forbidden.  In his essay "The Jihad in Plain Sight" Andrew C. McCarthy, director of the Center for Law & Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies notes that "the Bush administration circulated guidance, long touted by the State Department and other pockets of Islamophilia, that would purge jihadism—the word and the very thought—from our public lexicon."

Like Mary Habeck, McCarthy makes it clear that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not jihadists and are not prone to violence.  But he notes, "That said, however, it is whistling past the graveyard to ignore or minimize the virulent strain of fundamentalist Islam that galvanizes jihadism."

In her book The Mighty & the Almighty, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright wrote that September 11, 2001 "marked the full emergence of a new and complex challenge to the national security of the United States.  Unlike the ‘godless' communists, this enemy claimed to be engaged in holy work."  This is a reality we cannot forget, politely ignore, or conveniently gloss over.

A December 2001 joint resolution of Congress designated September 11 as "Patriot Day."  In his 2008 Patriot Day proclamation President Bush said:

On Patriot Day, we remember all those who were taken from us in an instant and seek their lasting memorial in a safer and more hopeful world. We must not allow our resolve to be weakened by the passage of time. We will meet the test that history has given us and continue to fight to rid the world of terrorism and promote liberty around the globe.

Above the fold in last year's Washington Post is a picture of the new memorial outside the Pentagon that was dedicated on September 11, 2008.  And while I plan to go and see it, for me remembering is as near as my empty left pocket.

*First published September 11, 2008.


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