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16 Years After 9/11 Our Patriotism Remains ‘Uninformed’

Sixteen years ago today, 2,977 innocent lives were lost in what became known as the “9/11 terror attacks.” As my family mourns, we also awkwardly commemorate what we call our “second birthday”—rather than a victim, my father was a survivor of the attacks. My father found himself just five floors below the impacted area of the South Tower of the World Trade Center when the second plane hit.

The view from my father’s office on the 91st floor suggested anything but what his colleague called “a fire”—the size of the chasm, the cascading documents, and, amid the papers, a human figure leaping into the air only to descend towards the street until out of sight.

[1]As my father turned around, he saw that his office had cleared. He, like everyone else, walked—not ran—down the stairs. When the stairwell doors opened for the first time somewhere in the middle of the building, my father felt a loud shock just a few flights above him. Watching the news later that day from my grandparents’ apartment, my father realized what he had heard—and the melting steel frames and cracking concrete he had seen on his way down—was the result of the second plane hitting his building.

Regardless of one’s proximity to the events of 9/11, it had a palpable impact on our country, on our policies, and our sense of who we are as a people. Entering adulthood with the memory of that day, it informed my decision to become a historian of Islam and to offer my expertise in the service of my country. It gave me what President Ronald Reagan called an “informed patriotism.”


In his farewell address delivered from the Oval Office on January 11, 1989, Reagan warned that “the resurgence of national pride…won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.” Rather, he said, “an informed patriotism is what we want…our spirit is back, but we haven’t re-institutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.”

In the 16 years since 9/11, we have found a new patriotism but have not yet channeled it in a thoughtful and meaningful manner in terms of understanding who we are and how we ought to engage with the world. Indeed, while we are acutely aware of the new threats—particularly from jihadist terrorism—our endless engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq and the increased rates of terrorist attacks suggest that we have not yet formulated a way to engage these issues.

Given our complex and dangerous world, we are tasked with finding a way forward that is grounded in “thoughtfulness and knowledge” and guided by a “re-institutionalized” spirit. In other words, an “informed patriotic strategy” for America to meet its threats.

The historian’s approach is key here. In order to effectively apply an “informed patriotic strategy” we need to answer two historical questions: What is the history of a particular issue, and what is our history of dealing with that issue? By grappling with these questions, we get closer to understanding how our engagements contribute to our country’s legacy in the world, and, conversely, how it might damage our legacy. Ultimately, as Reagan implied and as history shows, it is what we do that shapes who we become and what we will be capable of accomplishing.

Deploying patriotism to inform precision ensures that we not only win, but that we accurately calculate what we reap from victory, at what cost, and with what consequences. Answering these questions requires understanding issues through the correct contexts and using the right tools to address them.

An “informed patriotic strategy” can help address the issue of defeating ISIS and jihadist terrorism. Looking to the first of the two historical questions—the history of jihadism—we find that this includes ideas that stretch back well beyond the founding of the United States and well beyond the phenomenon of terrorism—namely to the 9th century. Theological questions of who is considered a Muslim, what it means to apply Islamic law and live as a Muslim, and whether or not Muslims should interact with non-Muslims lie at the core of the appeal of groups like ISIS. These discussions are not always violent and more often rely on interpretations of canonical religious texts—in fact, as I’ve observed [2], much of ISIS literature includes works on prayer and ritual observance. The aim for ISIS, then, and its definition of success is to build their version of an “ideal Muslim” [3]—a project for which the U.S. and its partners have no natural entry point.

Facing this ideological challenge, the U.S. can reflect on its history of dealing with this issue—what it has gotten it right, what it can improve, and the costs it has incurred on its own strategic posture and readiness. Ridding ISIS of its territory, targeting its leadership, and showcasing its violations of human rights have indeed weakened the group. However, these tactics have not translated into victory because we have not correctly framed the problem— namely, are we correct to focus on defeating “terrorism” or even “jihadist ideology?” What, then, should their defeat look like—should we eliminate all existing and potential terrorists or rid the world of its propaganda? How we frame the question determines what strategy we will choose to address it, and the resources we will allocate to that task (and, by extension, the resources, attention, and training we divert from other priorities). What question we choose to answer will not only be a deciding factor in whether we win or lose, but will also affect how efficiently we use resources, how much attention we spend on an issue, and whether our policies will have long-term consequences.

Instead, as I’ve written elsewhere [4], we must answer the question of when and how jihadist groups pose security threats, and define the patterns and situations that produce those dynamics, so that we can adequately address the more attainable objective of neutralizing and preventing these groups from acquiring the ability to launch attacks and communicate with a global network. This approach—steeped in an understanding of what jihadism is, how we have addressed it in the past, and the lessons we ought to have learned—ensures that the national security of our country and its allies and partners will be preserved in a sustainable manner. This might mean resigning ourselves to some degree of jihadist presence in the Middle East where we determine that they do not pose a significant threat to security, and then working with local partners to control and coerce these groups in order to prevent them from being effective and appealing.

The threats to global stability have evolved considerably in the 16 years since that horrific Tuesday morning in September. Although we can’t predict the next war, nor point to the combination of factors that will produce it, an “informed patriotic strategy” ensures that the United States can chart its course, set its priorities, and calculate its costs in order to prudently and effectively respond to our country’s next threat.

Dr. Jacob Olidort, a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, currently serves as special advisor on Middle East policy at the Department of Defense. All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or of any other part of the U.S. Government.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "16 Years After 9/11 Our Patriotism Remains ‘Uninformed’"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 10, 2017 @ 9:07 pm

Still remaining unaddressed, is why the United States is engaged in empire, and why what happens in pursuit of that empire really has anything positive to do with the security of hundreds of millions of Americans here at home.

#2 Comment By Thaomas On September 10, 2017 @ 10:57 pm

This sounds good, but is a bit vague. For instance the “engagement” in Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly similar. The latter has a reasonable end, to enforce the demand that the Taliban turn over OBL. [On can still question the cost and benefits of the policy, but it was not absurd on its face.] The invasion of Iraq was just — what? Pique? Whim? ridiculously overestimated risk? And the “homeland security” response was vastly over done and the passively accepted if not actively promoted development of Islamophobia gave no thought of the effects on the assimilation of Muslims in the US and attitudes of Muslims outside the US.

Yes, informed patriotism has a ways to go.

#3 Comment By Nelson On September 10, 2017 @ 11:49 pm

After walking through the local park this weekend. There was a special event with hundreds of flags covering a large area. It made me feel like our patriotism was a little too much on the showy emotional side and not enough on the making the future of our country better side. If the state I lived in practiced “good” patriotism, we wouldn’t have our current funding issues with our public schools and universities.

#4 Comment By John Gruskos On September 11, 2017 @ 8:50 am

Sunni jihadists have been waging continuous war against European Christian civilization since Caliph Muawiya sent fleets to ravage the Greek islands in the year 650 AD.

America is part of European Christian civilization. As such, we will always be targeted by Sunni jihadists.

Fortunately, we Americans can defend ourselves without spending a single dollar or shedding a single drop of blood, if we simply return to the pre-1965 quota-based immigration system.

They can’t hurt us if we don’t let them come here.

We should also encourage our European allies to likewise restrict immigration from the Middle East.

We should only be allied with enemies, not allies, of Sunni jihadists. Turkey should be expelled from NATO, and Russia should be invited to join.

#5 Comment By Michael Kenny On September 11, 2017 @ 10:53 am

What I find interesting is Dr Olidort’s tacit admission that terrorism cannot be beaten. The “war on terror” is unwinnable. Rather that just trying to stave it off, as I understand him to suggest, would it not be better to remove the cause of terrorism? Going to the dentist when you have a toothache is a good idea. Taking care of your teeth so as not to get the toothache in the first place is even better.

#6 Comment By Ras Al-Ghoul On September 11, 2017 @ 11:40 am

@John Gruskos

You forgot to mention these two:

1. taxing the drinkable water,
2. understanding the history of Eskimos

can also have a tremendous effect in fighting the sunni jihadists.

#7 Comment By dr g On September 11, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

Is that you Sebastian?

#8 Comment By Scott in MD On September 11, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

@Michael Kenny

Removing the cause of terrorism will require America to adjust to the world as it is, and some interpretations of that statement imply weakness. Can’t have that…

#9 Comment By SteveM On September 11, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

9/11 has become a maudlin quasi-religious civic cult that the Power Elites consciously use to maintain the obsolete and unaffordable America as Global Cop model.

“Never forget” is manipulative code language for further engorging the hyper-metastasized Security State and engaging in perpetual out-of-control “Power Projection”, the (deluded) taxpayers be damned.

Re: Ron Paul’s adage “Prudence, Peace and Prosperity”

The last thing the Washington War Party Nomemklatura wants is Prudence and Peace because then the evaporating Prosperity of the bottom 99% will become all too evident.

Under that rubric Patriotism = Adoration of the War Machine and threatening death and destruction as the principle tool of U.S. foreign policy

#10 Comment By Pete On September 11, 2017 @ 2:57 pm

Shame on American Conservative’s editors for publishing this unworthy piece on the anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks. Olidort plainly has nothing to offer but empty blather about right-thinking “patriotism” and the usual slurs against Muslim culture as the basis of “jihadism.” Beyond that, his associations with the notorious Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Modern War Institute at West Point put his professional credibility deep into question. We get enough warmongering neocon propaganda from the corporate media and their faux-conservative punditry.

#11 Comment By Saldin On September 11, 2017 @ 3:45 pm

John Gruskos

I hereby invite you to reject pagan polytheist human worship, and embrace True Monotheism.


#12 Comment By Tom Blanton On September 11, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

Dr Olidort is buffoon

#13 Comment By Preliminaries On September 11, 2017 @ 9:58 pm

Um, before trying to “understand jihad” I think we might want to ask and answer the question “why were we attacked on 9/11”.

According to the attackers themselves, the answer is fairly simple. The number one reason we were attacked was because of our Israel/Palestine policy, because we ended up siding with the Israelis against the Palestinians. There were other reasons, like setting up bases in Saudi spaces considered sacred, etc, but Israel/Palestine policy is one on the marquee.

So there’s no mystery, is there?

So the question isn’t “how can we better understand jihadis”. I think we understand the jihadis very well. No indeed. The question to ask on this 9/11 anniversary is “Why THE F*** did our policy change from ‘honest broker of peace talks’ to ‘Israel’s lawyer and sugar daddy’? Why didn’t we get THE F*** out of the Middle East after Desert Storm wound down? Who THE F*** urged us to stay there and get further drawn into ancient Middle Eastern hatreds?”

#14 Comment By Terry Washington On September 12, 2017 @ 4:02 am

Much of what passes for “patriotism” in both the UK and USA strikes me as the crassest form of jingoistic chauvinism- “smack the wogs/ragheads(and in the case of the NI” Troubles”, the “Paddies”). To quote George M. Cohan- “many a bum show has been saved by the flag!” And as for John Gruskos claim that if America returned to the pre-1965 quote based system of immigration, dream on- that is NO MORE likely to happen than returning to the days of the bustle, the clipper ship or the gold standard!!!

#15 Comment By Enver Masud On September 12, 2017 @ 6:50 am

The numbers show that homegrown terrorists are a bigger threat to the U.S. than those overseas where we continue to make war … and create terrorists.

Meanwhile, the war on terror has killed 4 million Muslims — [5]

#16 Comment By moi On September 12, 2017 @ 9:48 am

What more do I need to know other than the writer’s association with WINEP.

Pete’s comment above is entirely on the mark.

#17 Comment By Ed Fourati On September 12, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

Jihad is the one your institute wanted to be and well sold to US Gov.

#18 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On September 12, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

American Skyscrapers are the visiting card of the country. They are the face of America.
The destruction of the skyscraper in a villainous way is like a blow in the face.
America is a Christian country. Every Christian who read the Bible knows the rules of the Old Testament: A tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye. However, the actual Christian philosophy of the New Testament emphasizes forgiveness, repentance, and love.
In 1982 the Middle East confrontation began between the two world powers. Each of them tried to prove to the world who is the real master on the planet.
The Israelis supported by the US Sixth Fleet invaded Lebanon then. The US Marine Corps landed in Beirut and began preparations for an attack on the Syrian troops. The American battleship fired Syrian positions from 406mm guns …
Osama bin Laden has witnessed the destruction of high-rise buildings in Beirut and he got the idea then: someday try to destroy buildings in America, so Americans have felt somewhat like people feel in the Middle East (From a speech of October 29, 2004). Meanwhile, Jihad literally means an improvement. For example, there is a branch of jihad in the Ministry of Agriculture in Iran. People who want to improve their society call themselves jihadists. Osama bin Laden believed that the Islamic world is in deep crisis, and only a complete domination of Sharia will change the situation for the better. He opposed to secularism, Arab nationalism, socialism, communism and democracy. In 1988 he created “Al-Qaeda” (foundation). The aim of the organization is to overthrow secular regimes in Islamic countries, the creation of the “Great Islamic Caliphate”.
13 years remained until September 2001…
In 2001, the organizers of the terrorist attack provoked a response according to the Old Testament rules and wanted to show that America is not a Christian country, since it is not capable of acting in a Christian way. Imagine the unthinkable: America clears the rubble from collapsing buildings, bury the dead and … does not launch a retaliation operation, but gives the Taliban credit for developing the country’s economy, new quotas for the resettlement of Afghan refugees to the United States.
60 billion dollars spent on the war in Afghanistan would be enough to naturalize and adapt all Afghans to life in the US, to save more than one thousand American soldiers.