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The Wages of September 11
THERE IS NO GOING BACK
September 11 changed our world. Those who deny such a watershed event take a superficially short-term view and seem to think all is as before simply because the sun still rises and sets.
This is a colossal misjudgment. The collapse of the towers, the crashing into the Pentagon, and the murder of three thousand Americans--all seen live in real time by millions the world over--tore off a scab and exposed deep wounds, which, if and when they heal, will leave ugly scars for decades. The killers dealt in icons--the choice of 9/11 as the date of death, targeting the manifest symbols of global capitalism and American military power, and centering their destruction on the largest Jewish city in the world. Yes, they got their symbols in spades, but they have no idea that their killing has instead become emblematic of changes that they could scarcely imagine.
Islamic fundamentalism has proved not ascendant but static, morally repugnant--and the worst plague upon the Arab world since the Crusades. By lurking in the shadows and killing incrementally through stealth, the vampirish terrorists garnered bribes and subsidies through threats and bombs; but, pale and wrinkled in the daylight after 9/11, they prove only ghoulish, not fearsome.
The more the world knows of al Qaeda and bin Laden, the more it has found them both vile and yet banal--and so is confident and eager to eradicate them and all they stand for. It is one thing to kill innocents, quite another to take on the armed might of an aroused United States. Easily dodging a solo cruise missile in the vastness of Afghanistan may make good theater and bring about braggadocio; dealing with grim American and British commandos who have come seven thousand miles for your head prompts abject flight and an occasional cheap infomercial on the run. And the ultimate consequence of the attacks of September 11 will not merely be the destruction of al Qaeda but also the complete repudiation of the Taliban, the Iranian mullocracy, the plague of the Pakistani madrasahs, and any other would-be fundamentalist paradise on earth.
Foreign relations will not be the same in our generation. Our coalition with Europe, we learn, was not a partnership but more mere alphabetic nomenclature and the mutual back-scratching of Euro-American globe-trotters--a paper alliance without a mission nearly fifteen years after the end of the Cold War. The truth is that Europe, out of noble purposes, for a decade has insidiously eroded its collective national sovereignty in order to craft an antidemocratic EU, an 80,000-person fuzzy bureaucracy whose executive power is as militarily weak as it is morally ambiguous in its reliance on often dubious international accords. This sad realization September 11 brutally exposed, and we all should cry for the beloved continent that has for the moment completely lost its moral bearings. Indeed, as the months progressed, the problems inherent in "the European way" became all too apparent: pretentious utopian manifestos in lieu of military resoluteness, abstract moralizing to excuse dereliction of concrete ethical responsibility, and constant American ankle-biting even as Europe lives in a make-believe Shire while we keep back the forces of Mordor from its picturesque borders, with only a few brave Frodos and Bilbos tagging along. Nothing has proved more sobering to Americans than the skepticism of these blinkered European hobbits after September 11.
America learned that "moderate" Arab countries are as dangerous as hostile Islamic nations. After September 11, being a Saudi, Egyptian, or Kuwaiti means nothing special to an American--at least not proof of being any more friendly or hostile than having Libyan, Syrian, or Lebanese citizenship. Indeed, our entire postwar policy of propping up autocracies on the triad of their anticommunism, oil, and arms purchases--like NATO--belongs to a pre-9/11 age of Soviet aggrandizement and petroleum monopolies. Now we learn that broadcasting state-sponsored hatred of Israel and the United States is just as deadly to our interests as Scud missiles--and as likely to come from friends as enemies. Worst-case scenarios like Iran and Afghanistan offer more long-term hope than "stable regimes" like the Saudis; governments that hate us have populations that like us, and vice versa; the Saudi royal family, whom ten thousand American troops protect, and the Mubarak autocracy, which has snagged billions of American dollars, are as afraid of democratic reformers as they are Islamic fundamentalists. And with good reason: Islamic governments in Iran and under the Taliban were as hated by the masses as Arab secular reformers in exile in the West are praised and championed.
The post-9/11 domestic calculus is just as confusing. Generals and the military brass call civilians who seek the liberation of Iraq "chicken hawks" and worse. Yet such traditional Vietnam-era invective I think rings hollow after September 11, and sounds more like McClellan's shrillness against his civilian overseers who precipitously wanted an odious slavery ended than resonant of Patton's audacity in charging after murderous Nazis. More Americans were destroyed at work in a single day than all those soldiers killed in enemy action since the evacuation of Vietnam nearly thirty years ago. Indeed, most troops who went through the ghastly inferno of Vietnam are now in or nearing retirement; and, thank God, there is no generation of Americans in the present military--other than a few thousand brave veterans of the Gulf, Mogadishu, and Panama--who have been in sustained and deadly shooting with heavy casualties. Because American soldiers and their equipment are as impressive as our own domestic security is lax, in this gruesome war it may well be more perilous to work high up in lower Manhattan, fly regularly on a jumbo jet, or handle mail at the Pentagon or CIA than be at sea on a sub or destroyer.
Real concern for the sanctity of life may hinge on employing, rather than rejecting, force, inasmuch as our troops are as deadly and protected abroad as our women, children, aged, and civilians are impotent and vulnerable at home. It seems to me a more moral gamble to send hundreds of pilots into harm's way than allow a madman to further his plots to blow up or infect thousands in high-rises.
Politics have been turned upside down. In the old days, cynical conservatives were forced to hold their noses and to practice a sometimes repellent Realpolitik. In the age of Russian expansionism, they were loathe to champion democracy when it might usher in a socialist Trojan horse whose belly harbored totalitarians disguised as parliamentarians. Thus they were so often at loggerheads with naive and idealist leftists.
No longer. The end of the specter of a deadly and aggressive Soviet communism has revived democratic ideology as a force in diplomacy. Champions of freedom no longer sigh and back opportunistic rightist thugs who promise open economics, loot their treasuries, and keep out the Russians. Instead, even reactionaries are now more likely to push for democratic governments in the Middle East than are dour and skeptical leftists. The latter, if multiculturalists, often believe that democracy is a value-neutral Western construct, not necessarily a universal good; if pacifists, they claim nonintervention, not justice, as their first priority. The right, not the left, now is the greater proponent of global freedom, liberation, and idealism--with obvious domestic ramifications for any Republican president astute enough to tap that rich vein of popular support.
All this and more are the wages of the disaster of September 11 and the subsequent terrible year--and yet it is likely that, for good or evil, we will see things even more incredible in the twelve months ahead.
Written on September 9 and published in National Review Online on September 11, 2002.
FROM CRIMINALITY TO POLITICS IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE
A disturbed teen crashes a light plane into an office building in Florida and leaves a suicide note, apparently praising the work of bin Laden. Relieved that hundreds were not killed, officials properly assure us that his desperate act is a sign of mental illness or family despair, and not connected to global terrorism. At the Los Angeles airport a supposedly unhinged Egyptian emigre murders innocents at the El Al Airline counter; we are reminded by pundits and diplomats that the anti-Semite once again acted alone and thus was not a part of an al Qaeda cell.
Snipers in Maryland and Virginia blast apart civilians at random. Thereafter we are advised that although one was an angry Black Muslim and the two previously had expressed approval of the September 11 attacks and had very disturbing appurtenances in their car, both were not in any formal sense a part of al Qaeda. Arrests of various conspirators on both the East and West Coasts, who either visited Afghanistan or helped to organize Islamic "charities" as fronts for terrorists raise more controversy than relief--as anguished relatives swear that the indictment of such American patriots is proof of anti-Islamic prejudice rather than proper homeland security. We still do not know the exact circumstances of the anthrax letters; yet we are lectured that earlier reports that one of the September 11 murderers may have had a cutaneous form of the rare disease and that letters connecting the bacilli with terrorist fury were probably bogus.
This caution is perhaps fine and proper, as it should be, since there is not always legal proof implicating any of these events with a worldwide al Qaeda network. But in some sense, it doesn't matter.
The violent terrorist acts share an ostensible theme of either reflecting the aims of al Qaeda or professing some sympathy with radical Islamic fundamentalism. They are as dangerous as the work of terror cells because they presage a sporadic, spontaneous, and nearly unpredictable outbreak of violence that is also decentralized and untraceable. In short, rather than being al Qaeda shock troops, these killers and criminals are al Qaedistic--or perhaps show symptoms of a malady we should call "al Qaedism."
One did not need to be a formal follower of Hitler to be fascistic, or a member of Stalin's party to be communistic. In fact, the Greek suffix "-istic" ("like" or "pertaining to") can mean simulation of, or empathy with, the real thing. What are the symptoms of such a pathology like al Qaedism? How does it spread? And how can it be eradicated?
Thousands of Americans are wicked or mentally troubled, often with records of criminal activity or signs of such intent. Most murder, maim, rob banks, or commit other such mayhem, and leave it at that, seeking no claim of higher political import for their odious crimes. But not all--and not after 9/11.
On the campus in the 1970s, both petty criminals and megalomaniac thugs sought to mask their selfish and narcissistic agendas under the more cosmic cloak of the antiwar movement, national liberation, or utopian egalitarianism. So the felons of the Black Panther Party, the grim killers and bank robbers of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and many of the mad bombers of the Weathermen were encouraged by the rhetoric of the nebulous resistance movement to act out their violent propensities--in hopes that allegiance to some half-baked philosophy would make them revolutionaries rather than the felons they were.
So it was with criminals like the would-be mass murderer Richard Reid and the two snipers, who all had either a prior rap sheet or displayed signs of real instability, but perhaps wished to evolve from two-bit losers into momentary warriors--on the idea that their crimes might at last find transcendence in some sort of ad hoc jihad. In that sense, the cheap rhetoric of al Qaeda--a godless and oppressive United States wars unjustly against poor Muslims and the dispossessed of the globe; Jews conspire everywhere; decadent Western society must cede to a puritanical Islam--can energize an otherwise pedestrian cruelty and thereby salvage a cause from a personal sense of failure and inadequacy.
Rather than confront the reality of past character flaws, mental instability, failed marriages, or the bleak future of no money, dead-end jobs, or social ostracism, the al Qaedist--whether an erstwhile Black Muslim, a Middle Eastern immigrant with a criminal past, or a mixed-up, pampered suburbanite who dabbles in fundamentalism--seeks notoriety for his crimes, and therein perhaps at last a sense of importance.
Unfortunately to the snipers' innocent targets in Virginia and Maryland--or any others who will die by unhinged al Qaeda wannabes--it makes no difference whether they were the victims of terror or terroristic behavior. Law-enforcement officials, of course, are growing worried about such trends--as if the ideology of al Qaeda quite independently across time and space can infect crazy, mean people and prompt them to act out their dreams in violently anti-American fashion. Al Qaedism, after all, can serve as a sort of receptacle for extreme lunatics of the anti-Americanism brand who seek purer and more violent avenues of expression.
In the 1930s there were literally thousands of unbalanced Westerners outside Germany who paraded around in black shirts and aped Hitler. No doubt had the Third Reich not been demolished the more deranged would have continued to dress up their criminality with Nazi slogans, violent anti-Semitism, and terrorist acts. But by 1945 few would-be National Socialists were prominent. Violent fellow travelers were common in the 1930s and 1940s; indeed, the archives of arrested Stalinists often reveal those who tried to find some higher plane to act out their innate criminal propensities, alleviate deep personal maladies, or simply assuage their own failure by displaying anger toward Western society. Yet we see few such dangerous misfits after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
To rid us of al Qaedists, then, we must first not merely destroy al Qaeda, but do so in such comprehensive and humiliating fashion that the easy emulation of the radical Islamicist agenda not only draws opposition from friends and family but utter ridicule. And at home, Americans must not be afraid to address extremism when they see it, refute it--and do so in such a way that its perpetrators incur shame and odium on themselves rather than inspire the criminal, hateful, or mentally ill to equate their anger and failure with a virulent anti-Americanism.
I suppose it was entirely legal last Halloween for the New Black Panther Party and its Islamic fundamentalist allies--firebrands like Imam Abdul Alim Musa, Imam Muhammad Asi, Imam Abdel Razzag Al Raggad, and others--to voice empathy for the Taliban, express publicly racist and anti-Semitic hatred, and convey sympathy for those who murdered three thousand Americans. But it was not a very moral act for C-Span to broadcast that repulsive propaganda live from the National Press Club at a time of war.
Watching protesters in the recent antiwar march in Washington on public television no doubt gives balance to the debate, but again broadcasting shots of posters that declared i love iraq, bomb texas or photos of the president of the United States with a Hitlerian mustache and Nazi salute crosses the line of good taste.
By the same token, it is very American for zealots to shout displeasure at their government, but their slurs that the president of the United States, the vice president, and the secretary of defense are the "true axis of evil" rather than Stalinist North Korea, fascistic Iraq, or theocratic Iran have consequences in the future that we cannot predict in the present. And we should be concerned that an apparent Iraqi national, recently returned with permission from Saddam Hussein's regime, leads Americans in chants about their amoral war. We should cringe, too, when the former attorney general, Ramsey Clark, compares an American administration to Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Gestapo. There are ripples from such hate and we are seeing how insidiously they can lap into crazy minds.
In other words, we have a moral responsibility to oppose such extremism and, yes, subversion. Such hateful anti-American language can lend a sense of legitimacy and encouragement to a John Muhammad, a mixed-up teenage John Lee Malvo, or an angry anti-Semite Hesham Mohamed Modayet at the Los Angeles airport, and so elevate their pathologies into something apparently "meaningful," or perhaps even enrage them to at last act.
Of course, the real task of preventing isolated but often violent and deadly terroristic acts requires the defeat and degradation of al Qaeda abroad. But stopping al Qaedism here at home is as much a social and cultural as a legal or military challenge. We cannot censor those who carry signs that advocate bombing Texas, but we should surely censure them--and hope that another loser like John Williams, John Walker Lindh, Jose Padilla, or Richard Reid is not watching them on C-Span, ready to attack Americans as a creepy jihadist John Muhammad, Abdul Hamid, Abdullah al-Muhajir, or Abdel Rahim.
Written on October 30 and published in National Review Online on November 1, 2002.
From the Trade Paperback edition.