For the first few years of the "post-9/11 world" – to embrace the terminology of our previous President – every hack comedian in the country survived on a steady diet of jokes in the format: "If we __________, then the terrorists win/have already won!" Like all memes, the joke was funny the first time with diminishing returns thereafter until it reached Annoying status. By now even the hackiest of hack comedians won't use such a dated cultural reference.
The joke worked, to the extent that it did, on a number of levels. It ridiculed people who used this phrase in earnest. It mocked the seriousness with which some Americans treat the most banal parts of our lives ("If we cancel college football, then we've let the terrorists win!") And it amuses Americans, at least subconsciously, to think of "losing" a war, let alone a war against a bunch of people living in caves.
However, our hubris relies heavily on the pre-9/11 mindset of which President Bush spoke so regularly. What is defeat? To us, defeat is what we inflicted upon the Nazis and the Japs in World War II. Countries are devastated, governments toppled, and societies radically restructured. Down with Emperor Hirohito, up with a figurehead monarchy in a constitutional democracy. Even the terrorists themselves, smack-talk inspired by the need for religious justifications aside, would not claim that they could inflict this on the United States. Yes, they could blow up some airplanes and buildings, maybe killing a few thousand people. But toppling the government? Installing sharia law? Converting us to Islam? Even bin Laden would roll his eyes and say "You must be high" to any such suggestions.
Of course that was not their goal. Unlike Americans, Islamic terrorists do not relate everything back to World War II. They see themselves not as an opposing army but as the Joker to our rule-based Batman. They are interested mostly in causing chaos, in destabilizing tenuously stable economies and societies through fear, panic, and a small number of well-timed and -executed actions. They thought we needed a better class of criminal than the Soviet boogeyman that was so hard to sell after 1991. And they gave it to us. [/Batman analogies]
In that context, why talk, or even joke, about the terrorists winning? It is abundantly clear that they have already won. Charles Johnson, current right-wing apostate and creator of Little Green Footballs, was once described by a mutual acquaintance as a nice, normal individual driven completely and overwhelmingly insane by 9/11. His mind became a disorganized morass of fear, poorly conceived ideas for violent revenge, and cultural/ethnic hatred toward Muslims. Mr. Johnson does not deserve singling out, though, because that description applies to America as a whole for the last nine years.
They won. Nineteen people plus a loose network of associates who helped them execute their stunningly simple plan at a total cost of about $400,000 (per the 9-11 Commission) gave up their lives to kill a few thousand innocent civilians and in the process drove an entire nation insane. How can we look at America circa 9/11/2010 and attempt to argue that they did not accomplish their goal? America is a neurotic basketcase dog-paddling in its own toxic vomit of xenophobia, proto-fascist politics, and an alarmingly large social divide. We pursued an utterly pointless war at the cost of over a trillion dollars, thus bankrupting (not to mention demoralizing) the nation and setting us at one another's throats even more violently as we fight over the scraps of a once-mighty economy in the shadow of an external threat that is, for the most part, in our heads.
That is the lesson to learn from 9/11. We are particularly bad at learning lessons from tragedies and bad decisions, which is why so many of us believe we lost the Vietnam War because we didn't stay the course. Today the lesson we seem to have learned from 9/11 is that Muslims are bad or that to fight this threat we have to wipe our ass with the Constitution and start operating by Jack Bauer rules. The lesson we do not learn is that "terrorism" is about instilling terror, as the name implies, leading to social, economic, and political disorder in the target nation. As we stand today with a wrecked economy, an intensely divided society, and a political system that has nearly ceased to function altogether there can be no doubt that the terrorists won. They won because we let them win. They wanted us to go completely fucking insane and we were more than happy to oblige.