NOW THAT IT HAS HAPPENED TO US, the White House is not calling for "restraint." The State Department is not concerned about "escalating the cycle of violence." There are no editorials imploring the parties to conduct a "peace process" and "sit down at the negotiating table."
Now that it has happened to us, the TV anchors are calling them terrorists, not "militants" or "activists." Washington is not being warned to avoid a "provocative" response, or cautioned against retaliation that is "excessive and disproportionate."
Now that it has happened to us, our eyes have finally opened. Now at last we understand that there is a war underway -- and we are in it. For years we have acted as if the front line were elsewhere, and as if our job was to watch from the sidelines and make sure our friends didn't defend themselves too aggressively. Now, after the worst massacre in US history, only the willfully blind can fail to see that the front line is here. The war between freedom and slavery, between hope and hopelessness, between the decent and the indecent, will be won or lost in America. For it is America that stands for everything our enemies hate.
But let us be honest. Those enemies have not been shy about declaring their enmity. Time and again they have announced that they despise us; time and again they have called for our destruction.
They have announced it from the mosques of Gaza, as broadcast live by the Palestinian Authority: "Wherever you are, kill those Jews and those Americans who are like them -- and those who stand by them. They are all in one trench, against the Arabs and the Muslims."
They have proclaimed it a religious duty, as in the fatwa of Osama bin Laden, publicized worldwide in February 1998: "To kill the Americans and their allies, civilians, and military is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."
They have made it a national crusade, as when Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament, exhorted Islamic militants in 1994 to "hijack planes," "blow up factories in Western countries," and "declare open war on American interests throughout the world."
How often have we seen them burning American flags? How often have we been demonized as "the Great Satan?" How often have they attacked US citizens, US embassies, US assets? For at least a decade it has been apparent that the most intense hatred of the United States and its values could be found in the world of Islamist fundamentalism. But too many Americans -- and too many of their leaders -- preferred not to notice.
"The suicide bombers of today are the noble successors of ... the Lebanese suicide bombers, who taught the U.S. Marines a tough lesson in [Beirut]" exulted Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Yasser Arafat's newspaper, on Tuesday. "These suicide bombers are the salt of the earth, the engines of history.... They are the most honorable among us." Over and over and over, our enemies have talked this way. Did we think they didn't mean it?
Upon releasing its annual report on global terrorism last year, the State Department observed that "the primary terrorist threats to the United States emanate from two regions, South Asia and the Middle East." That is, from the regions where Islamist fanaticism is concentrated. But the US government, it would seem, couldn't be bothered to listen to its own warning.
Or to the warnings of the enemy. In some ways, the worst thing about this week's slaughter is not that it occurred, not even that such obvious terrorist targets as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- the Pentagon! -- could be so easily attacked from the air. The worst thing is that we were so unprepared for it even after the attack on USS Cole last fall (17 murdered). Even after the bombing of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (224 murdered). Even after the blowing up of the Khobar Towers barracks in 1996 (19 murdered). Even after the car bomb at the US military center in Riyadh (5 murdered). Even after the first World Trade Center bombing (6 murdered).
There were those who saw what lay ahead and tried to sound the alarm. In an interview with Daniel Pipes's Middle East Quarterly in 1997, Steven Emerson, the nation's leading expert on Islamist terror, was explicit: "If anything, the threat is greater now than before.... The infrastructure now exists to carry off 20 simultaneous World Trade Center-type bombings across the United States."
As recently as this May, Pipes and Emerson wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terror network, was "planning new attacks on the US," and that Iranian officials "helped arrange advanced weapons and explosives training for Al-Qaeda personnel in Lebanon where they learned, for example, how to destroy large buildings."
War always seems to find Americans unprepared. We didn't see Pearl Harbor coming, or the sinking of the Lusitania, or Stalin's Iron Curtain, or Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. But we fought and won the world wars, the Cold War, the Gulf War. Now we must fight and win again.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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