It was not until the afternoon of September 11, 2001, that I was able to gather my family together in our home and begin to explain what was happening. Nobody could yet make sense of the event but I wanted to tell my children one thing: this horrible event which was unfolding before our eyes was going to dramatically change the world as we knew it. Their childhood sense of innocence was to be forever corrupted. We held hands, said a prayer and like hundreds of millions of others, watched the television.
In less than one month our military forces were to engage the Taliban in Afghanistan and in March 2003 begin a war in Iraq. We are still fighting. My son was 8 years old in 2001, just an ordinary boy in third grade. He is eighteen now. I am his father and he is my son. This past weekend he also became my brother-in-arms. As I did 38 years ago, John took his oath of office as a Midshipman in the United States Naval Reserve and swore his allegiance to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and to well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which he was about to enter, so help him God.
And so, our War on Terror and terrors’ war on my family has come to this. My son has joined a long line of soldiers and sailors who await their turn to defend our country. Every generation in the past century has had their war: The Great War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Afghanistan and Iraq in less than 90 years.
This war on terror is breaking all of the rules. We approach our tenth anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom. We are painfully aware of the protracted conflict visible on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq but less so in the other areas of the world. Operation Enduring Freedom has taken us to the Philippines, the Horn of Africa, Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, Trans-Sahara Africa, the Caribbean and Central America and Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps there are more.
The battle lines of the War on Terror were drawn long before they were made more visible by 9/11. We were in battle against the threat of Muslim extremists. The Foreign Policy Research Institute has complied a comprehensive litany of terrorism. The first World Trade Center car bombing in 1993 was masterminded by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric. In 1994, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group hijacked an Air France flight possibly intended to fly into the Eiffel Tower. In June 1996 Saudi Hezbollah car bombed the Khobar Towers where Americans stayed. In 1997, Abdel-Rahman’s Islamist group attacks at the Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor, Egypt. In 1998, the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed. In October 2000 Al Qaeda carried out a suicide bombing on the USS Cole while in port in Yemen.
There is an inescapable observation here that the principal perpetrators of violent terrorism against the United States and the West are radical Islamic extremists. And yet, I do not subscribe the theory of guilt by association. I have met many wonderful practicing Muslims in my life and respect their faithfulness. I know Muslims from Egypt and Pakistan to Indonesia and Malaysia. Some of those I know live here in America. I have broken bread with them and call them friend. Those I know share the dream of working hard to achieve much and respect me for what I am and what I believe.
We know, though, from the brutally hard evidence of terror on our soil, that not all Muslims share the tolerance of my friends. We must remain constantly vigilant and committed to keep that threat in check. We cannot control the entire world but we can control our sovereign territory. And that starts at our borders. We cannot afford to be selective of who we choose to challenge. If our borders are porous for one, they are porous for all and we are less secure for the indifference. If we tolerate the lawlessness of those who would cross our borders without permission, we cannot separate those who may be seeking a better opportunity from those who wish to do us harm.
I believe we are still digesting the lessons of 9/11 and worldwide terrorism but this much we know. Our sovereign territory is our last refuge in a complex and interconnected world. We must control the ports of entry from all who would enter without permission. No one would argue that we should permit terrorists to enter into our country illegally. But some argue that others should be free to come and go as they please. Who can tell the difference?
Consider this. The threat of terrorist inspired violence touching your life pales in comparison with the threat presented by gang and human trafficking related violence. With all of our sophistication, we have not developed a device to determine intention. Our best defense is keeping those who have no legal right to be here on the other side of the border. In the meantime, my son, and brother-in-arms, will stand his post, along with several million more just like him, in a war that his generation has inherited so you may sleep a bit more securely tonight.
Herman Wouk famously wrote that, “The beginning of the end of war lies in remembrance.” So we do remember and we must remember with honor and reverence what happened 10 years ago and beyond.