Read more from Slate's Sept. 11 anniversary coverage.
My solidarity with soldiers, cops, and other "responders" didn't make me a full convert to the police mentality. I was a named plaintiff in the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the National Security Agency, for its practice of warrantless wiretapping. I found a way of having myself "waterboarded" by former professionals, in order to satisfy my readers that the process does indeed constitute torture. I have visited Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, those two grotesque hellholes of American panic-reaction, and written very critically from both. And I was and remain unreconciled to the stupid, wasteful, oppressive collective punishment of Americans who try to use our civil aviation, or who want to be able to get into their own offices without showing ID to a guard who has no database against which to check it. But I had also seen Abu Ghraib shortly after it was first broken open in 2003, and could have no truck with the moral defectives who talked glibly as if that mini-Auschwitz and mass grave was no worse. When Amnesty International described Guantanamo as "the Gulag of our time," I felt a collapse of seriousness that I have felt many times since.
One reason for opposing excesses and stupidities on "our" side (actually, why do I defensively lob in those quotation marks? Please consider them as optional) was my conviction that the defeat of Bin-Ladenism was ultimately certain. Al-Qaida demands the impossible—worldwide application of the most fanatical interpretation of sharia—and to forward the demand employs the most hysterically irrational means. (This combination, by the way, would make a reasonable definition of "terrorism.") It follows that the resort to panicky or degrading tactics in order to combat terrorism is, as well as immoral, self-defeating.
Ten years ago I wrote to a despairing friend that a time would come when al-Qaida had been penetrated, when its own paranoia would devour it, when it had tried every tactic and failed to repeat its 9/11 coup, when it would fall victim to its own deluded worldview and—because it has no means of generating self-criticism—would begin to implode. The trove recovered from Bin Laden's rather dismal Abbottabad hideaway appears to confirm that this fate has indeed, with much labor on the part of unsung heroes, begun to engulf al-Qaida. I take this as a part vindication of the superiority of "our" civilization, which is at least so constituted as to be able to learn from past mistakes, rather than remain a prisoner of "faith."
The battle against casuistry and bad faith has also been worth fighting. So have many other struggles to assert the obvious. Contrary to the peddlers of shallow anti-Western self-hatred, the Muslim world did not adopt Bin-Ladenism as its shield against reality. Very much to the contrary, there turned out to be many millions of Arabs who have heretically and robustly preferred life over death. In many societies, al-Qaida defeated itself as well as underwent defeat.
In these cases, then, the problems did turn out to be more complicated than any "simple" solution the theocratic fanatics could propose. But, and against the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain. Among them: Holocaust denial is in fact a surreptitious form of Holocaust affirmation. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie was a direct and lethal challenge to free expression, not a clash between traditional faith and "free speech fundamentalism." The mass murder in Bosnia-Herzegovina was not the random product of "ancient hatreds" but a deliberate plan to erase the Muslim population. The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called "evil." And, 10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form. Let this and other struggles temper and strengthen us for future battles where it will be necessary to repudiate the big lie.