September Triptych, Part Three

And so we come to the final panel of our triptych, the one marked 9/12. The day after. The aftermath. How do we deal with the Muslim world, when a sizable portion of their people seek our destruction?

This last question was the one that President Bush faced as the dust settled on Manhattan, as the fires burned at the Pentagon and in that Pennsylvania field. There are a billion Muslims in the world, give or take. If only 10% of them are "extremists" who aspire to jihad, that would be 100 million of them, which is more than the number of Germans or Japanese that we faced in World War II.

We, as Americans, hold the power to destroy a large chunk of the world's population, in silos in the Great Plains and in submarines prowling the oceans and in heavy bombers that can bring the explosive energy of the sun to any spot on the earth's surface. This would only happen in extremis, of course, or in retaliation for a nuclear explosion in one of our cities. And that, of course, is the true nightmare scenario. Should a mushroom cloud blossom over an American city, political correctness would immediately be dead in this country, and there would be a demand from the American people for immediate vengeance for the hundreds of thousands or millions of American dead. Anyone standing in the way of it would stand a good chance of being lynched from the nearest lamp post. And the end result would be that many, many people across the Islamic world would die.

We do not want a genocide on our conscience, however. We have no desire to annihilate the Muslim world if it can be avoided. The alternative is to change their societies so that killing infidels is no longer acceptable. That is what the war in Iraq was really about: Trying to create a country in the Middle East with liberal (small L) democratic (small D) values, that would become an economic success and not be a threat to its neighbors, and that would no longer champion Muslim terrorism. And of course, we are in a race with time, trying to make the Muslims into reasonable, secular people we can live with, before some of them commit an act so heinous that we have to destroy them. (And don't think that we wouldn't do it, given sufficent provocation; the Jacksonian streak runs deep in the American psyche.)

The results have been mixed. Unlike Germany and Japan after World War II, we did not decisively defeat the Iraqis. We destroyed their military and got rid of Saddam Hussein, but we did not make the average Iraqi feel "defeated" in the way that the average German or Japanese felt defeated in 1945, when his home and his workplace and his life was in ruins. Operation Iraqi Freedom, in contrast, was fought in such a surgical way that after it was over, the average Iraqi didn't feel the need to change his way of life.

Our worst mistake was in not immediately disarming the religious militias. We should have immediately issued a warning that anyone who wasn't in the U.S. or Coalition forces or designated Iraqi military/police forces, and was spotted on the streets with a weapon, would be shot on sight. And then we should have made a few examples. Instead, the Sunni and Shiite militias became the political power brokers in the non-Kurdish parts of Iraq. Rather than creating a secular society in which religion would have been relegated to a secondary role, the militias moved into the power vacuum created with the destruction of the Baathists. Rather than creating a country where murdering infidels was unacceptable, the would-be jihadis are running the show. Iraq has not turned into the showcase of Arab liberal democracy that we needed it to become, because we fought the war in too soft a fashion.

The clock is ticking. And even those on the other side of the aisle should be hoping that President Bush's gambit in Iraq eventually succeeds, because the cost of failure may be more agonizingly high than they can even imagine. If another date someday supplants 9/11 as the red-letter date of tragedy in America, the deaths will not be only on American soil.