In reality, the 1990's were full of terrorist attacks, many of which were shrugged off by the Clinton administration. Because they occurred in foreign lands, and the primary victims were military personnel, the American people shrugged them off, too. But it was a planned campaign, an incessant poking of the bear that would escalate with each lack of response.
Which brings us to the USS Cole bombing. It's hard to forget the images of the crippled ship coming home; the huge 60' by 40' hole torn into her side was a disturbing reminder that even we, the strongest country in the world, could be brought low. The response to this deadly attack on our brave men and women in uniform? Nothing so far. Ten years, and nothing has been done to bring the mastermind of the bombing, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, to justice.
Clinton vowed retribution:
“You will not find a safe harbor,” he proclaimed. “We will find you and justice will prevail.”
Eh, not so much. But what else was he supposed to say less than a month out from a major election cycle? The words and actions of politicians seldome sync. Nashiri is the only person we are holding for the Cole bombing (some planners eventually gave their sick and twisted all for Allah on 9/11), but the attack was credited to Osama Bin Laden (who actually read poetry about the bombing) and al Qaeda a mere two weeks after the event.
The Cole bombing was central to the intel about potential future strikes by al Qaeda - intel that was shrugged off by the incoming Bush administration. Less than a year later, that intel would prove true and everyone's attention would be focused on al Qaeda as they tried to come to grips with the events of 9/11. At least the Bush administration managed to capture Nashiri and place him in Gitmo in 2006, but nothing has been done since.
In early February of 2009, President Obama actually withdrew charges against Nashiri. The reason for the withdrawal was so the DoJ could reveiw handling of high value prosecutions of Guantanamo detainees. The DoJ recently filed a motion saying there were no immediate plans to file new charges - a motion that was met with dismay and disbelief by the victims and families.
And so another year has passed without justice for the Cole victims and survivors. That makes three presidents now who have dropped the ball.
This unwillingness to prosecute war criminals made the enemy think we were weak. Each incident was an escalation. When even the Cole didn't register, the plans for 9/11, which was already deep in the planning and preparation stages, went into high gear. They thought they could attack with impunity and expect little response - and why would they not?
Would retaliation for the Cole attack have averted 9/11? Who knows? On the one hand, al Qaeda might have been disrupted and funding siezed, which could have stopped the attacks. On the other, strikes on al Qaeda might have been a catalyst in and of itself, triggering the attacks anyway. Either way, the perpetrators of the attack on the USS Cole remain unpunished, and wondering what might have been takes time away from dealing with what really has occurred. Which leaves unanswered the burning question of the day -
When will there be justice for the Cole?