As the anniversary of 9/11 draws near, it's becoming ever clearer that the legacy of the terrorist attacks will be as great or greater for domestic policies as for international affairs. Indeed, we can probably even forget the "clash of civilizations" stuff—not because it isn't true, but because it ultimately won't matter.
The conflict between the liberal West and reactionary elements in Islam has already been ugly, and it may continue for years or even decades. But the eventual outcome can hardly be in question. As Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, a keen and critical observer of Islamic culture, recently said, "The idea of [the terrorists'] strength is an illusion. The terrorists can fly a plane, but what they can't do is build a plane. What they can't do is build those towers."
Similarly, the original Gulf War and various attempts on the part of Arab states to conquer Israel underscore the lack of military prowess among organized Islamic armies. There will almost certainly be more bloodshed, both here and abroad, but the political and cultural system that delivers greater material wealth and personal freedom will certainly triumph. In fact, given the reaction to the liberation of Kabul from the Taliban, there are many reasons to believe that the Islamic masses are champing at the bit to indulge in "decadent" Western lifestyles.
So what about the domestic legacy? 9/11 is restructuring American life in myriad ways, ranging from the innocuous (continued strong sales and displays of U.S. flags) to the bizarre (airport security guards forcing nursing mothers to drink their own milk as a condition of boarding a plane).
While 9/11 hardly killed libertarianism, as Francis Fukuyama dreamed a while back in the Wall Street Journal, it has sanctioned expansive government spending (even new and improved farm subsidies managed to hitch a ride on the Homeland Security gravy train) and even more expansive government action when it comes to denying due process (hey, what's up with "dirty bomber" Jose Padilla anyway?), spying on citizens, and stonewalling various sorts of open-government protections (a John Ashcroft specialty that had even the conservative mag Insight on the News yelling, "Bush Team Thumbs Its Nose at FOIA").
Will such policies remain in place after the current crisis plays out? If the past is any guide, it's likely that they will, as citizens forget what things used to be like (who remembers, for instance, exactly when you had to start showing photo I.D. to board domestic flights?). Given all that, we can look forward to a future filled with more headlines such as this chilling one from today's Washington Post: "Secret Court Rebuffs Ashcroft: Justice Dept. Chided on Misinformation."
Or, worse yet, a future without such headlines.