The war that Osama bin Laden sought began a decade ago, when a hijacked jet plane slammed into the World Trade Center’s north tower at 8:46 a.m. on a beautiful, late-summer day in New York. The morning brought more attacks—another one on New York within 15 minutes of the first, an assault on the Pentagon and a failed attack on another Washington target.
On that morning, few Americans had ever heard of Osama bin Laden and the terrorist organization he directed from Afghanistan. That anonymity was a source of great frustration for a man who sought to be the world’s leading jihadist, who had tried to provoke the United States and the West into a holy war with attacks on other American targets in the 1990s. He did not get the attention he sought; he did not get the war he wished to lead. And so he dispatched 19 men to the United States to carry out a suicide attack that he believed would either cripple those he hated or lure them into a conflict they could not win.
He was wrong, of course, and now he is dead and the terrorist group he led, al Qaeda, is on the run. Yes, the terrorists are dangerous, still, after all these years, but their leaders have good reason to wonder if American eyes are watching their every move. They know that the forces of outraged civilization have not lost heart during this long and violent decade. Justice may arrive in the form of a SEAL team, or a cruise missile. Justice may wear many uniforms, or none. Justice may be carried out in a courtroom, or at the bottom of the sea.
And so the war goes on, a long war but a necessary one. There can be no doubt how it will end, if, that is, Americans work together to create and maintain widespread prosperity, economic freedom and individual liberty.
The United States remains as it was on that day a decade ago—a worldwide symbol of opportunity and progress. That is precisely why the terrorists boarded those planes on that lovely September morning, why bin Laden chose to bring war to these shores. The medieval world view of al Qaeda could not and cannot tolerate the liberties and freedoms that Americans take for granted. The jihadists knew they could not win a contest of ideas, so they chose a war that depended on the death wish of deluded followers.
Still, victory for the U.S. and all that it stands for is not assured; indeed, if the U.S. cannot rouse itself from today’s malaise, if it cannot continue as a progressive, dynamic champion of liberty and economic growth, this war could still be lost.
It should not come to that. But as we reflect on the lives we lost a decade ago, as we think about the ways we are different from the way we were on Sept. 10, 2001, we should remember that we have work to do before we dare declare victory.
It is not enough to kill those who seek to kill us. We cannot allow ourselves to fall behind, to become anything less than a place where opportunity is available to all. That will never do.