As the 10-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks approaches, the United States is in mourning again — this time for the 30 service members who lost their lives when insurgents downed a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan last month. Among the casualties were Navy Seals belonging to the team that killed Osama bin Laden.
America’s bloodiest day in Afghanistan serves as a tragic bookend to the 9/11 decade. What began with a shocking display of how an extremist few can inflict mass carnage ends with a reminder of how a heroic few can sacrifice for the good of the many.
This strange symmetry offers an answer to the most haunting question that September 11th posed: How can democracy endure in a world where individuals not only refuse to abide by the will of the majority but demand to impose their own will upon it?
In one form or another, this question has been at the heart of almost every war the United States has ever fought. During the Revolution, the Founders asked how all men could be created equal when one wore a crown. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln pondered how majority rule could survive if a minority could secede whenever displeased with the results. And during the total wars of the 20th century, leaders from both parties asked whether the world could ever be safe for democracy while millions still lived under tyranny.
The United States prevailed in each of these struggles for a reason as noble as the cause for which it fought. While America’s enemies predicted a democracy could not sustain a long war, the opposite proved true. A country that went to war with the consent of its people could better marshal the manpower and resources needed for victory.
In his annual message to Congress in December 1864, Lincoln could boast that the rebels had no better chance of persevering in battle than at the ballot box. The math was simply not on their side. “The important fact remains demonstrated, that we have more men now than we had when the war began; that we are not exhausted, nor in the process of exhaustion; that we are gaining strength, and may, if need be, maintain the contest indefinitely,” Lincoln wrote.
Likewise, in the first State of the Union after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt could raise the specter of an arsenal of democracy fully mobilized with 130 million Americans “inspired to render their own full share of service and sacrifice.”
By the end of the 20th century, democracy’s triumph seemed assured. The Axis powers had become pillars of free market democracy. The Iron Curtain had fallen. It seemed no barrier could stand in the way of freedom’s march.
Then, on a September morning in 2001, 19 hijackers stole our faith in the inevitability of democracy. Suddenly any man with a box cutter could be a tyrant without an army. There was no safety in numbers, no strength in majorities. With advances in technology, mass destruction no longer required mass mobilization.
President George W. Bush immediately recognized that terrorism was an attack on the very essence of democracy, just as dangerous as the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century. Yet the path to victory would not be as straightforward.