It began as a picture-perfect September day. It ended with Manhattan maimed, one side of the Pentagon charred black, a patch of Pennsylvania smoldering with faint traces of battle, and thousands of innocents erased.
Whatever we call September 11, 2001—the beginning of a war, the end of America’s invulnerability, the exclamation point to decades of terror—one thing is beyond debate: It changed us. Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded the early phases of America’s counterstrikes against al Qaeda and its partners, called 9/11 a “crease in history,” a fault line that changed how we understand the world around us.
One of the hardest things to understand about the war unleashed by 9/11 is that, 14 years in, we are closer to its beginning than its conclusion. Americans hoped the death of Osama bin Laden would hasten an end to his war. But now we know “bin Ladenism”—the movement inspired by the author of 9/11—is anything but dead. To those who have been listening, this comes as no surprise. After all, just days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush tried to brace Americans for “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” In October 2001, Adm. Michael Boyce, then-Chief of the British Defense Staff, suggested the war against terrorism “may last 50 years.” By 2004, U.S. generals were calling the campaign against terrorism “the long war.” Gen. Martin Dempsey recently called the struggle against jihadism “a 30-year issue.”
These military commanders grasped the essence of the post-9/11 challenge: Defeating jihadism would require time and endurance. It would resemble not World War II or Desert Storm, but rather the Cold War—a long, ideological-political-military struggle against a tenacious, transnational foe. In this light, NSC-68, the pivotal national-security document penned in 1950 that provided a roadmap for fighting Soviet communism, appears strangely relevant: Now, as then, our enemies are animated by a “fanatic faith, antithetical to our own,” the challenge is “momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this republic, but of civilization itself,” and success depends on recognition by “all free people” that this “is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake.”
Some counter that there’s no comparison between jihadism and communism. The former is disparate and diffuse, with no broad appeal, no base of operations, no pathway to global power. The latter had international appeal, a global reach and a monolithic industrialized nation-state as its base.
However, it’s worth noting that ISIS (the al-Qaeda offshoot that controls parts of Iraq and Syria) increasingly looks and acts like a nation-state: It controls a landmass the size of Italy, with 2 million subjects under heel and a steady stream of oil revenues; it’s attracting 1,000 followers to its death creed per month; it has bested the Iraqi and Syrian armies in battle; it has fought a U.S.-led air armada to a stalemate; it has franchises in Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines. The FBI is investigating suspected ISIS operatives in all 50 states. Moreover, ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist fighters have been drawn from—and dispatched to—virtually every corner of the earth. They have struck in Manhattan, Madrid and Mumbai, Beslan and Bali, Britain and Boston, Pennsylvania and Paris, Waziristan and Washington, Copenhagen and Canada. That’s global reach and international appeal.
President Barack Obama may truly believe “the tide of war is receding.” But our enemies are surging: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper called 2014 “the most lethal year for global terrorism in the 45 years such data has been compiled.” There are 41 jihadist-terror groups in 24 countries today—up from 21 groups in 18 countries in 2004. They are targeting the liberal order forged after World War II, and they are tearing away at the fabric of civilization.
While yesterday’s enemies sought to stamp out belief in God, today’s envision a world where everyone either submits to their vision of God or dies. ISIS, al Qaeda and their ilk take literally Muhammad’s injunction “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah.’” Their goal is to create the conditions for a decisive battle between the faithful and faithless, and ultimately to construct a transnational theocracy. It would be anything but paradise on earth.
Consider what the Taliban did while in power—and continues to do while trying to reclaim power: The Taliban banished girls from school, ordered Hindus to wear identity labels, beheaded people for dancing, turned soccer stadiums into execution chambers, burned people alive and imprisoned Christian missionaries. Today, the Pakistani Taliban is bombing Christian churches. Thanks to the U.S. military, about 2.5 million Afghan girls are in school. In response, Taliban militants have launched poison-gas attacks against girls’ schools to terrify their families and teachers back into the darkness.
It was the Taliban that allowed bin Laden to turn Afghanistan into a spawning ground for jihadism. Bin Laden warned that his cult of killers “do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.” That became obvious on 9/11, when bin Laden’s war reached our shores. A little girl not yet three years old was the youngest to be murdered. Her name was Christine. Her grandfather describes her as “love personified.” She died in the unspeakable hell of Flight 175, when it plowed into the World Trade Center’s south tower.
ISIS has been called “worse than al Qaeda”—and perhaps deservedly so. As proof of its savage piety, ISIS (whose adherents are Sunni Muslim) has summarily executed thousands of Shiite Muslims; drowned and burned alive POWs; murdered Yazidis; and beheaded Christians. ISIS has imprisoned children as young as eight; executed imams, teachers and hospital workers; ordered Iraqi Christians to convert or die; and conducted a systematic campaign of rape in conquered territories.
This is the enemy the U.S. military has been fighting for 14 years. In a world where might still makes right, it is the U.S. military—not international treaties, presidential speeches or UN resolutions—that protects us from such enemies. However, the U.S. military is not at war with Islam—after all, in the past quarter-century, U.S. troops have rescued Muslims in Kosovo and Kurdistan, Somalia and Sumatra, Kuwait and Kabul—but it is at war those who would force people to submit to Islam. It is at war with people who “do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians.” It is at war with murderers and rapists masquerading as holy men. It is at war with those who seek to destroy civilization. Make no mistake: There’s a vast difference between those who use force to defend civilization and those who use force to dismember it. Our defenders strive to protect the weak. This enemy targets the weak. Our defenders weep when innocents are slaughtered. This enemy cheers. Our defenders are sickened by the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Boston bombings and Garissa siege, by 7/7 and 9/11, by the Muslim-on-Muslim megacrimes that scar the Middle East. This enemy is emboldened by them. Our defenders believe war is a necessary evil, this enemy that war is a divine commandment.
To be sure, Islam doesn’t claim bin Laden’s mass-murderers or the Islamic State’s butchers or the Charlie Hebdo killers. But the hard truth is that all of them claim Islam. To suggest that the solution is for everyone else—Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, cartoonists—to try harder not to offend Islam is self-defeating. As Christ followers, we know the pathway to real peace among peoples is the one pathway to the Father: Jesus. But until Jesus returns, there will be profound disagreements among us. The solution to such disagreements is to agree to disagree—never to force someone to believe or die.
Muslims have the primary burden here—a duty to eradicate the cancer and reform their faith. Ironically, the strongest call for reform—at least among Muslim leaders—is coming from an autocrat in Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who recently called on Islamic scholars to lead a reformation. Noting that his faith has become “a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world,” he declared, “We are in need of a religious revolution.”
Sisi is an imperfect vessel, but what he said needs to be put into practice. If not, Islam’s civil war will tear civilization apart.
Add it all up, and the post-9/11 world is a frightening place. As followers of Christ, we have a role to play in helping our neighbors through this time of terror.
If the military commanders are right, and we’re still closer to the beginning of this struggle than the end, then we’re at a kind of crossroads on this anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Pleading His case through the prophet Jeremiah, God once told His people to “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”
As believers, we have stood at the crossroads since Jesus ascended into heaven. We can endure today because we know what He did yesterday and because we know He holds tomorrow. That may not be true for our neighbors. For them, this is not a crossroads—it’s a dead-end of despair.
In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey describes Christians as dual citizens. “We live in an external kingdom of family and cities and nationhood,” he observes, “while at the same time belonging to the kingdom of God.” Because of this dual citizenship, we are light for a world darkened by despair; we are salt for a world bent on destruction; we are ambassadors for Christ. He is making His appeal to the world through us.
Christ was a dual citizen. And He showed us how to be ambassadors of heaven. Before Jesus set about His task of giving hope to a hopeless world, He prayed. Jesus prayed before He began His public ministry, before choosing the Twelve, before feeding the 5,000, before and during His hour of death. He prayed in all things.
We should follow His example. We should pray for our neighbors and their fears, for our defenders and their families, for our leaders and their decisions, for our world and its afflictions, for the right words and the right moments. And then we should share good news.
The good news is that, with Christ, we don’t have to wallow in yesterday or fear tomorrow. We need not be distressed by wars, by rumors of war, by gathering storm clouds. If nothing else, 9/11 taught us that no one can prevent or escape the storms. But Jesus taught us that those who anchor on the rock of His word rather than the sands of this world will not be lost, that there are shafts of light piercing this darkness, that one day the Light will flood the darkness.
This is the ancient path, the timeless way to a heart at peace. As heaven’s ambassadors, it’s our calling to guide our neighbors onto that path.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.