Did We Learn Anything At All From 9/11?

A casual professional acquaintance of mine went down on the plane out of Boston on 9/11. He left a wife and small children. I didn't know him well. I had talked with him on the phone a few times, and been in meetings with him a couple of other times. Beyond that, I didn't know him well. But any time a woman with small children is left a widow, it grates.

Three months after 9/11, over the Christmas holidays, I read the Koran from cover to cover. I was...appalled. The pronouncements of the political elite, over the next few years regarding Islam were, for anyone who has actually read the Koran, shocking evidence of the political elite's utter ignorance and detachment from reality.

Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty came to mind every time someone said "Islam is a religion of peace":

"When I use a word', Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'
'The question is', said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is', said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master – that's all."

Shortly after reading the Koran, I took a year off of work for reasons unrelated to 9/11. I read an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, during that time, bemoaning the fact that Yahoo! and other hosted discussion groups were virulent recruiting grounds for extremists.

In possession of certain relevant technical skills, I undertook to investigate whether or not the fact of online extremist recruiting could be turned into a useful source of insight regarding Islamic terrorism. This was the beginning of some time spent on my own in what has now come to be called "open source intelligence".

I created some software tools to help in connecting non-intuitive dots. Along the way, I discovered a vulnerability in Yahoo!'s discussion groups by which obfuscated e-mail addresses could be reconstituted, and even correlated with the general geographic location from where the messages were being posted. Combining this information with other tools I built, I soon automated the ability to reconstruct entire social circles of anyone posting on a Yahoo! group, along with other relevant data gleaned through judicious bot-crawling of search engines.

For a few years I informally advised people in the intelligence community on open source intelligence opportunities, and eventually helped with an effort to unmask the web masters running the Iraqi resistance web site. A place where they had been posting pictures of the mutilated bodies of American soldiers.

Over time, though,  I became very disillusioned by my experience trying to help. In part because of the continuous stream of utterly insane pronouncements emanating from the cavernous skulls of the political class.

But also because I came to believe we were going to lose.  

Not because we couldn't win, but rather because we wouldn't win. We were far too fastidious. We lacked the necessary moral confidence and imagination to actually achieve a decisive victory, and to put a final end to the devouring of young American lives. Not only that, but it became increasingly apparent that the federal bureaucracy was far more interested in using intelligence resources to crush internal political opposition than in actually protecting the American people.

So here on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I have come across two poignant posts that, as much as anything I've read, resonate with my own experience and conclusions.

The first is a post at Instapundit from a friend of Glenn Reynolds. It's worth posting here in its entirety:

Some days back a friend asked me what we have learned twenty years after 9/11. I sent these answers:
1) That our enemies have taken our measure, and we never took theirs. Bin Laden’s strategic predictions vis a vis Afghanistan and the United States have been vindicated: 9/11 was for the other side a massive, generational strategic success.
2) That the entire American governing apparatus is incapable of real strategic thought.
3) That the federal government of the United States is much more inventive, determined, and relentless in curbing its own citizenry than it is in curbing those who would slaughter that citizenry.
4) That the federal government of the United States will allow foreign-power interests — specifically Saudi and Pakistani — to override and eclipse the just interests of the American citizenry.
5) The preceding item exists, of course, because we are ruled by an elite with much stronger social ties to other elites than to the people of our republic.
6) That our generational response to 9/11 guarantees that 9/11 will happen again and again.
This twentieth anniversary is even more depressing and cruel than they usually are. We didn’t suffer as a lot of Americans did that day — my wife made it out of Lower Manhattan alive, for one thing — but because we are Americans, we suffered. Our leadership class was utterly incompetent to the moment, and remained so for the succeeding generation. Today we have inflicted upon us the twin bookends of blundering who mark the two-decade span. In Pennsylvania, President George W. Bush speaks: the man who cared more for Saudis than Americans while the fires still burned, who abandoned the hunt for the immediate perpetrator mere weeks after the massacre, and who cynically leveraged the moment to pursue his own disastrous projects. In Manhattan, President Serial plagiarist Joe Biden speaks: the lone figure of significance who opposed the raid to get Osama Bin Laden, and the man who presided over the shameful humiliation of defeat in Afghanistan.
A healthy and virtuous republican citizenry would shun them, and erase their names from the record.
Some questions arise. Now that we’ve decided it’s fine for Al Qaeda and the Taliban to have a country of their own again, can we at least abolish the TSA? Now that we’ve given Al Qaeda and the Taliban a stupendous cache of arms and ammunition, can we eliminate all federal gun-control law? Now that we’ve decided we have a community of interest with the Taliban — including its Al Qaeda elements — can we release everyone jailed on account of January 6th?
Hey, just asking. It hardly seems unreasonable for Americans to ask Washington, D.C., for treatment as generous as Washington, D.C., accords the terrorist movements who slaughtered thousands of us in our own streets.
Eric Paliwoda is dead, and for what.
Kim Hampton is dead, and for what.
Classmates are maimed, and for what.
Friends are wracked with PTSD, and for what.
What did we learn?
Twenty years later, we learn that the enemy won — and our ruling class was on their side.

The second post I refer to as one that comports with my own experience is from the inimitable Mark Steyn.  You can read his entire post here.  I heartily recommend it.  He offers a bracing dose of realism without, the sentimental emotivism that accompanies most of the establishment's normal behavior on this somber anniversary.

As for the war overseas, it ended with a military that can do everything except win handing the keys to Afghanistan back to the guys who pulled off 9/11 - and apologizing for the two-decade inconvenience by gifting the mullahs with some of the most expensive infrastructure on the planet plus an air force, approximately five assault rifles for every Taliban fighter, and express check-in for the forty-seven per cent of the Afghan population that apparently served as US translators.
From time to time I still try to imagine what it must have been like on those planes. Twenty years ago I singled out three names from the flight manifest:
Peter Hanson, Massachusetts
Susan Hanson, Massachusetts
Christine Hanson, 2, Massachusetts
I used to think of the young parents, struggling to comfort the little girl sitting between them even as they confront the reality of their own fate. Mr Hanson was able to telephone his father in Connecticut and tell him that a hijacking was underway and that a stewardess had been stabbed. I wondered about the moment when everyone - Mr and Mrs Hanson, the flight attendants, the passengers - realized that the antiquated 1970s hijack procedures did not apply, that these men did not want to negotiate anything (the release of political prisoners, safe passage to Cuba) but wished only to destroy them.
Did those of us not on the planes ever learn that distinction? On the evidence of how the Taliban played the US "negotiators" in Doha, no.
There are honorable ways to lose a war. This was not one of them. We have dishonored the dead of 9/11 and insulted their sacrifice.
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