Seven Years of Incomprehension

It looks as if 9/11 is on the verge of becoming a national holiday. It is curious that this should be so, on a number of levels. The cable news channels, whose attention span is already amazingly limited, couldn’t get enough of remembrance, with Fox replaying its entire 2001 coverage and the others featuring lengthy excerpts. The two presidential candidates set aside the contest for the moment, deciding not to run campaign commercials on this apparently sacred day, then descending almost hand-in-hand, if visibly slightly uncomfortable and perhaps even a bit prickly toward one another, into the hole that is what still remains of the Twin Towers (is this the same country that built the entire Pentagon in a matter of months during World War II?). All the TV stations that pretend to do news replayed the images, often accompanied by mock-solemn music of no particular content. And it wasn’t just in New York City or Washington, which had sustained the direct damage. All over the country commemorations were held, not just in front of city halls but even in private residences.

But it is a bit curious as well. It commemorates an undoubted victory for the terrorist side and casts the U.S. as an innocent and largely uncomprehending victim. Americans love to think of themselves as eternally innocent, of course, but reveling in victimhood usually pales after a while.

Of course there is a natural human impulse to want to commemorate the 2,974 innocent victims of fanatics whose motives still seem inscrutable to most Americans (though not as inscrutable as the appalling people who rule us would have us believe), but whose actions reek of evil. Most of those who died have still-living relatives, loved ones, and friends, so perhaps it is some comfort to them to have an annual remembrance. Other motives for making September 11 an occasion for showily solemn remembrance and resolution exist also, some not so obviously compassionate.

We saw one of those motives rather clearly in the forum/symposium or whatever the followed with both John McCain and Barack Obama sitting down with PBS newsie Judy Woodruff and Time magazine editor Richard Stengel to discuss the solemn obligation we Americans have to engage in "national service." Although both candidates made some bows to the importance of voluntary and "faith-based" genuinely community-oriented charitable and philanthropic endeavors, it was not easy to avoid the implication, reinforced by holding it on September 11, that the main message of 9/11 is that we should line up in ersatz unity to more enthusiastically serve the government.

There is obviously another motive for holding conspicuous commemorations, exemplified perhaps by an e-mail I got inviting me to a showing (if I happened to be in Michigan) of a documentary detailing the nefarious and all-pervasive plans the jihadists have for decimating the West and establishing a universal caliphate. Neocons, as well as the denizens of the numerous bureaucracies now ostensibly devoted to "keeping us safe," issue frequent reminders that there are numerous people out there in the big, bad world who are, as Sarah Palin put it, "hellbent" on harming us. And if the threat is exaggerated into an existential one, threatening not just our "way of life" but our very survival as a nation, so much the better for the War Party and its sometimes passive, sometimes active allies in bureaucracies, boardrooms, and editorial boards across the country. Using fear to accumulate power is probably as ancient as human society itself.

I don’t know whether it’s ironic, tragic, or just plain stupid, however, that the kinds of remembrances favored by our supposed leaders reflect an almost complete misunderstanding of the real threat in favor of building apprehension about more ephemeral threats. Seven years after the terrorist attacks that destroyed New York’s World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon, government policymakers and most Americans have still not come to grips with the nature of the terrorist threat we face, nor grappled seriously with how to handle it.

We have beefed up security around government buildings and put in place a program of systematic harassment of airline travelers that creates an illusion of doing something. All this has prompted yet another of those commissions, this one co-chaired again by former Indiana Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton of Iraq Study Group notoriety (don’t these guys ever go home, or was Thomas Wolfe right?) to give the country a mixed grade of C.

But neither the government nor the commission seems to have noticed that this isn’t the second coming of the Cold War.

The United States was attacked by a band of fanatical, stateless, jihadist ideologues who believe their perverted understanding of their religion demands that they attack governments and other institutions in the West and undermine moderate or secularized Muslim governments. Although al-Qaeda had at the time found sanctuary in an Afghanistan run by the fundamentalist Taliban regime, it was not itself a state, although it could be argued that its ambition to establish a strict Muslim "caliphate" from Morocco to Indonesia indicated an ambition to establish a state-like regime.

After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and used local insurgent elements to overthrow the Taliban and put al-Qaeda on the run, it lost focus. Perhaps it was that to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail, and to a country with the most powerful and effective military everything looks like a problem to be handled by military means. Certainly the fact that a tight band of neocons who had been placed in positions of power and influence had been itching to attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq since 1991. For whatever combination of reasons, the U.S. turned its attention from those who had actually attacked it and undertook an invasion of a country that had not, no matter how repugnant its ruler was.

That action not only diverted resources from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, it created a cause célèbre for jihadists and jihadist recruiters worldwide. There was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq before the invasion, but it didn’t take long for one to form and to wreak havoc with efforts to stabilize the country. Although weakened at its core, al-Qaeda central became more effective at inspiring than leading directly, and local groups organized, trained, and committed acts of terrorism in Indonesia, Spain, England, and Morocco. And in Iraq, of course. And now al-Qaeda Central seems to have reconstituted itself in the badlands of Pakistan in ways that make it very difficult for U.S. forces to get at it, not only because the people living there conceal them but because the government with nominal sovereignty in the region doesn’t want to be seen as a U.S. puppet, though in the Musharraf days it sometimes disapproved of unilateral U.S. action with a wink and a nod. Karzai in Afghanistan, of course, approves of having the raids that kill civilians in some other country.

Dealing with decentralized groups of fanatics willing to kill themselves will require a range of tools, most of them used quietly and with little fanfare, including training and/or recruiting Arabic-speaking intelligence operatives, surveillance of various kinds, efforts to infiltrate (difficult as that might be), "turning" disillusioned former jihadists, disrupting financial networks, and finding local people around the world willing to provide information. Most of this will look more like police work than military action, though some Special Forces actions might well be appropriate from time to time.

The Rand Corporation, hardly a nest of appeasers and pacifists, given that it was founded to serve the Air Force, was a center of Cold War strategic and tactical thinking and still gets about half its income from direct government contracts (and not necessarily the band of militarists some on the other side of the ideological divide see, either), recently issued a report that advocates such an approach in great detail. Perhaps the best book outlining a more effective strategy than the blunderbuss approach is Charles Pena’s Winning the Un-War.

Since U.S. occupation of Muslim countries offers one of the more effective recruiting tools for fanatics, a serious approach to defeating the current terrorist threat will also consider the beneficial effect of withdrawing U.S. forces from Muslim countries. In fact, this might well be the single most effective thing that could be done to reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. It’s not that some of the jihadist fanatics won’t still hate the U.S., but without an aggressive U.S. presence in or occupation of Muslim countries, it will be more difficult to recruit operatives willing to die to punish us.

And don’t worry, they’ll still sell us oil, and the price might even come down. A U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is simply not necessary to ensure that oil flows from the region, and it might even be something of a deterrent.

Instead of this subtle, multifaceted yet targeted approach, both major presidential candidates now tout the importance of increasing U.S. military activity in Afghanistan, historically the graveyard of empires.

Perhaps we’ll learn something by the eighth anniversary. But it may be that too many powerful people in this country have too great a stake in promoting deliberate misunderstanding for the lessons to sink in by then.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).