Commemorating a national tragedy requires integrity. Memorial Day is not observed with proclamations of pacifism, nor should it be. December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, is properly remembered as the day that will “live in infamy,” not as a plea for international sensitivity.
As Americans prepared to remember the loss of nearly 3,000 innocent lives in the most horrific attack in our history, our measure of fidelity to the meaning of 9/11 was tested. There was, understandably, a wide array of commemorative responses. Amid the profusion of agonizing replays, poignant reminiscences and solemn reflections, one response was conspicuous for its willful distortion of history.
As it happened, it came from the White House in the form of guidelines to government officials. Released to The New York Times (and curiously unavailable on any government website), it provided a dismaying glimpse of memory transformed by a political agenda.
“A chief goal of our communications,” declared the guidelines, “is to present a positive, forward-looking narrative.” No space would be wasted with reminders of the war that had been declared by jihadi Muslims, inspired by Osama bin Laden, against the United States as the ultimate embodiment of evil.
Indeed, as one government official explained, “The important theme is to show the world how much we realize that 9/11 – the attacks themselves and violent extremism writ large – is not just about us.” Precisely why a targeted attack against the United States was not “just about us” was left to the imagination.
Contriving a multicultural event, the White House proclaimed: “We honor and celebrate the resilience of individuals, families, and communities on every continent, whether in New York or Nairobi, Bali or Belfast, Mumbai or Manila, or Lahore or London.” This alliterative recitation was clearly designed to deflect attention from the nation that was exclusively targeted on 9/11.
It also conspicuously omitted two cities in one country that has been the target of choice for Muslim terrorists for decades. That country, of course, is Israel, where Palestinian terrorists carried out deadly massacres in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv long before, and ever since, 9/11. In the past decade alone, more than 1,000 Israelis were murdered in targeted terrorist attacks, while more than 8,000 rockets have been launched into Israel by Hamas and Hizbullah. Why the White House chose to ignore Jewish victims of Muslim terrorism in the Jewish state, targeted solely because they were Jews, deserves an explanation – and an apology.
In a revealing display of wishful thinking, the White House guidelines instructed American officials abroad to emphasize that “Al Qaeda and its adherents have become increasingly irrelevant.” It all depends, of course, on what the meaning of “adherents” is. Certainly Hamas and Hizbullah, funded and armed by Iran and Syria, have not disappeared.
As New York Times culture critic Edward Rothstein noted in his scathing commentary (September 3) on the White House guidelines, they contained no hint that 9/11 was “about Islamist extremism or the jihadist proclamations by its aspirants.” They also carefully avoided mentioning that American military power has had anything to do with crippling Al Qaeda or obliterating Osama bin Laden and other top leaders.
According to the guidelines, the tenth-year anniversary was to be a national day of “Service and Remembrance.” Commemoration should encourage “service projects” and a “spirit of unity” to strengthen the nation whenever it is called upon to confront “whatever dangers may come – be they terrorist attacks or natural disasters.” Somehow 9/11 and Hurricane Irene became moral equivalents.
What the White House guidelines, and the president who authorized them, ignored is the horrifying uniqueness of 9/11: Muslim terrorists declared war against the United States by flying airplanes filled with innocent travelers into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and (due to the uncommon bravery of passengers on Flight 93) the ground at Shanksville rather than the Capitol.
Perhaps the more urgent conclusion to be drawn from 9/11, missing from the commemoration guidelines, is that appeasement of terrorism is misguided. There was, after all, a history of pre-9/11 terrorism directed against American targets. In 1998, 257 people were killed by Islamic terrorists who blew up American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Two years later an Al Qaeda attack killed 17 American sailors aboard the USS Cole.
But the response of the Clinton administration was muted. And the incessant bureaucratic infighting and ineptitude in the CIA and FBI, and between them, left the nation woefully unprepared for what was coming as bin Laden grew ever more emboldened.
In his Cairo speech in 2009, and since, President Obama has defended Islam as a religion of peace while soft-pedaling Muslim extremism and avoiding its continuing targeting of Israel. According to his director of national intelligence, after all, the Muslim Brotherhood “is largely secular, eschewing violence.” The president’s counter-terrorism adviser claimed “there is no Jihadist terrorism, because Jihad is a process which purifies the soul.” His homeland security secretary avoided mention of terrorism by substituting the ludicrous “man-caused disaster.”
An unprecedented national tragedy cannot be understood, nor future danger averted, by wishful thinking, euphemism, and denial. But the revisionists are already hard at work to do just that.
The integrity of commemoration, as most Americans surely realized, required truth-telling. But the White House 9/11 guidelines lamentably demonstrated that a president known for “leading from behind,” except when Israel is available for pummeling, may not yet realize that while 9/11 is now a decade in the past, the dangers to Americans – to say nothing of Israelis – from Muslim terrorism remain front and center on any jihadi target list.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena” (Quid Pro Books), published in June.