What are the real lessons of 9/11? The same, sadly, as the lessons of Feb 26. Remember that date? How about the full date of February 26, 1993? The FIRST World Trade Center attack? The one that killed six people? Sound family? The lesson of 9/11 is the same as the lesson of 2/26.
We live in a Science Fiction World.
We live in Science Fiction World, because we don't live in the certainties of the Cold War anymore. No stable duopoly, no "leash" on the proxy forces of each superpower, to prevent nuclear Armageddon. In itself, a good thing. But the forces of globalization, trade, economic growth, and the availability of technology coupled with "just enough" but not "enough" cultural change in failing, tribal societies guarantees major Western (and other) cities will be destroyed by nuclear devices. A truly, Science Fiction world.
First, let's examine the motives of the 1993 WTC bombers. They marked a sea-change in what was attempted, in terms of casualties and operations, and what was desired. The 1983 Beirut Barracks bombings, and other terrorist actions against the US in the 1970s and 1980's, including the Tehran Hostage Crisis, were all designed to get the US to simply LEAVE certain regions. Which, largely, the US did, in areas it had no compelling interest to stay. Such as Lebanon. The US itself was off-limits, for fear of provoking a response too unhealthy for the terrorists, who were in turn sponsored and trained, and largely controlled by various states. Hezbollah controlled by Iran and Syria, was the culprit responsible for the Beirut Barracks bombings which killed 241 US servicemen. Terrorists wanted something. They picked targets outside the US, designed to create public pressure to withdraw US forces domestically, with either hostage taking, or attacks on US forces, or bombings of jetliners (Lockerbie Scotland, Pan Am Flight 103). An ugly business, of brutal men killing Americans to use US domestic politics to achieve specific ends. But ultimately, one that did not threaten intrinsic US interests.
The 1993 WTC bombers, by contrast, planned to topple one tower onto another, and kill 50,000 people. Think about that. The plan intended to kill 50,000 Americans, in a few minutes, on US soil. What was the motive?
The motive was simple, and it was not intended to seriously influence US public opinion on any particularly issue. "Do this or more attacks." Rather, the motive was to kill as many Americans as possible. So that the plotters would have fame, fortune, and many jihadis flocking to their organization, and receive much money also. Likely masterminded by the "Blind Sheik" Omar Abdel-Rahman, though he was never charged, his "Islamic Group" sought to be the Number One Jihadi organization, over Hezbollah, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and Islamic Jihad (it's main Egyptian competitor, headed by Abdel-Rahman's main rival, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahari).
Conservatives say, jihadis hate us for our freedom. Very true, but then Jihadis hate the Chinese, the Thais, the Russians, and each other's rival and splintered groups. It was widely suspected among Jihad groups in Pakistan that Ayman Al-Zawahari was the man responsible for assassinating one of the original leaders of Jihad in Pakistan-Afghanistan against the Soviets, Abdullah Azzam, along with his sons. Liberals ask, "why do they hate us?" and call for dialog and "understanding" in the desperate attempt to make some "deal" to stop further attacks.
Neither is helpful. Each jihadi, and each Jihadi organization, is in competition with others. For men, for money, for power. All of which flow to men and leaders and organizations capable of killing lots of Americans. And which wither away when such men and organizations prove themselves incapable of providing ever increasing body counts of dead Americans and spectacular scenes of destruction.
This accounts for what otherwise makes no sense: Al Qaeda's increasing attacks on the US, with no attempt to manipulate US domestic opinion to achieve concrete but limited goals. There were no hostage taking, with demands for money and concessions that an administration, eager to put the episode behind it, would concede. No actions aimed at simply pushing the US out of areas it never really cared about in the first place. That was not the goal. Instead, the goal was simple: kill lots of Americans, and gain money and men and power. Given enough of that, a man such as bin Laden might even overthrow the House of Saud. Or Zawahari the Mubarak regime. Or perhaps the Islamic Group, still led by the Blind Sheik, would do it first.
The reason this creates a Science Fiction World, is that we have a modern equivalent of the Vikings, raiders who cannot be bought off, for whom there is no "deal" to be made, and who will keep attacking, out of their own internal dynamics and with no real center of command. To whom does the Blind Sheik answer to? What about Ayman Al-Zawahari? Or Osama bin Laden? Or the leaders of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat? Or any number of obscure, Jihadist organizations and leaders.
The second part of this Science Fiction world is nuclear proliferation. Currently, the nations of Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have nuclear weapons. Short of invasion and extensive bombings, Iran will join them very soon. It is very unlikely that Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, or Israel will give or sell nuclear weapons to Jihadists. The Ukraine and South Africa voluntarily gave up their nuclear weapons, the Ukraine to the Russians, and the South Africans after the fall of Apartheid, dismantled (they claim at least) their own nuclear weapons (which were of the simple, "gun-type" Uranium variety, which Oppenheimer did not even bother to test, so certain was he in 1945 that the device would work).
But Pakistan, and North Korea remain problems. With Iran another problem on the horizon. North Korea will sell weapons and has, to just about anyone. They live under the Chinese nuclear umbrella, so do not fear US response. Which in any case has amounted to bribes to stop their nuclear program, without any verification. Since North Korea has nothing to sell other than weapons to trade for food, and it's population subsists at starvation level, it's unlikely they've given up all their nuclear weapons. More disturbing is the fact that a nation where many subsist at near or below starvation levels, can construct nuclear devices (and working Ballistic Missiles). Even if they don't always work, that they work at all shows how common, simple, and affordable nuclear weapons (and Ballistic Missiles) have become. From Hitler's crude V-2 rockets, and the Manhattan project, nuclear weapons and ICBMs have made the same transition that modern computers have. Affordable commodities.
Pakistan, of course, is a set of squabbling tribes with a flag. Divided along linguistic, tribal, regional, and factional lines, with Army and Intelligence service deeply divided itself and factionalized into pro-Jihad sentiments, the nation is a mess. Whole regions have been ceded to the Taliban and Jihadist movements, because the divided and ineffective Army cannot maintain control in those regions or defeat the Jihadis. Much of the Army and Intelligence service are in fact, Jihadis, and view them as an essential part of the nation's and Islam's struggle with Hindu India. The new President of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto's widower, has reported mental problems including depression, thoughts of suicide, and voices in his head. At any rate, he is viewed as incredibly corrupt, and detested by the military which does not respect him nor follow his orders. His rival, Nawaz Sharif, is a pro-Jihadist and makes no attempt to hide his sympathies. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is distributed about the nation, the harder for the Indian forces to destroy in a decapitation attack, but easier for Jihadis to gain access to. Given the primacy of tribal and clan loyalties, in a nation where the rule of law is an interesting theory never actually put into practice, it is questionable how long the Pakistani government can keep Colonels and Majors from handing a few to their cousins or brothers in influential and powerful Jihadi movements.
Iran is nearly as bad, with nearly as much factional struggles, and each eager to provoke a war with the US to discredit and destroy their rivals. The Hostage Crisis 1979-80 was about the Ayatollah Khomeni's desire to destroy any pro-Western forces as it was "anger" about America's sheltering the Shah. At a time when the USSR and it's client Saddam menaced Iran (and about a year AFTER the Hostage taking, Saddam did in fact invade and nearly destroy Khomeni's regime), the Khomeni regime picked a fight with the US to destroy internal opponents.
You can see echoes of this strategem with Pakistani jihadis attacking Chinese engineers on critical infrastructure projects inside Pakistan. China has been Pakistan's ally against India, for about 35 years. That these attacks have continued show the depth of the factionalization inside Pakistan, and their effectiveness.
We live in a Science Fiction World, when the internal dynamics of crude, organized crime gangs with religious aspirations, guarantee they will attempt mass murder attacks on the US. We live in a Science Fiction World when these crude groups can gain access by kin and tribe networks, to nuclear weapons created by states that exist only as polite fictions. We live in a Science Fiction World where the fear is not of world-wide Armageddon, but rather a city dying in an instant. Just so a few thugs can gain more power.
That is the meaning of 2/26, and the true meaning of 9/11.