David Bell, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, has an op ed in
today’s yesterday’s Los Angeles Times called “Was 9/11 really that bad?” In spite of the flame-baiting headline, which I doubt Professor Bell wrote, it makes a sensible point.
Has the American reaction to the attacks in fact been a massive overreaction? Is the widespread belief that 9/11 plunged us into one of the deadliest struggles of our time simply wrong? If we did overreact, why did we do so? Does history provide any insight?
Certainly, if we look at nothing but our enemies’ objectives, it is hard to see any indication of an overreaction. The people who attacked us in 2001 are indeed hate-filled fanatics who would like nothing better than to destroy this country. But desire is not the same thing as capacity, and although Islamist extremists can certainly do huge amounts of harm around the world, it is quite different to suggest that they can threaten the existence of the United States.
Yet a great many Americans, particularly on the right, have failed to make this distinction. For them, the “Islamo-fascist” enemy has inherited not just Adolf Hitler’s implacable hatreds but his capacity to destroy. The conservative author Norman Podhoretz has gone so far as to say that we are fighting World War IV (No. III being the Cold War). …
… as the comparison with the Soviet experience should remind us, the war against terrorism has not yet been much of a war at all, let alone a war to end all wars. It is a messy, difficult, long-term struggle against exceptionally dangerous criminals who actually like nothing better than being put on the same level of historical importance as Hitler â€” can you imagine a better recruiting tool? To fight them effectively, we need coolness, resolve and stamina. But we also need to overcome long habit and remind ourselves that not every enemy is in fact a threat to our existence.
This is pretty much what I’ve been saying all along. There aren’t enough jihadists in the world to destroy the United States. There aren’t enough of them to invade us, seize Washington, and occupy our territory. There just aren’t. That ought to be obvious. Even if they could pull off another 9/11, that wouldn’t destroy us, either.
Professor Bell began his op ed this way:
IMAGINE THAT on 9/11, six hours after the assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon, terrorists had carried out a second wave of attacks on the United States, taking an additional 3,000 lives. Imagine that six hours after that, there had been yet another wave. Now imagine that the attacks had continued, every six hours, for another four years, until nearly 20 million Americans were dead. This is roughly what the Soviet Union suffered during World War II, and contemplating these numbers may help put in perspective what the United States has so far experienced during the war against
Yes, if the jihadists could pull off a 9/11 attack every six hours for four years, that would constitute an existential threat. But, obviously, they can’t come anywhere close to that.
At this point I want to remind readers that I was, in fact, in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and am an eyewitness to the collapse of the WTC towers. Anyone who comments that I am in denial about what happened on 9/11 will be well and thoroughly ridiculed.
Naturally a number of rightie bloggers already are hyperventilating over Professor Bell’s op ed, and their reactions prove once again that righties have the reading comprehension skills of gnats. And you absolutely can not challenge a rightie’s overblown senses of righteousness and victimhood without getting snarked.
The point that Professor Bell only mentions, but which is critical, is that our overreaction is hurting us more than it’s hurting them. Several antiterrorism experts interviewed by James Fallows for this September 2006 Atlantic Monthly article made the same point most urgently. I blogged about this article here, here, and here, and probably elsewhere. Here’s an excerpt:
No modern nation is immune to politically inspired violence, and even the best-executed antiterrorism strategy will not be airtight.
But the overall prospect looks better than many Americans believe, and better than nearly all political rhetoric asserts. The essence of the change is this: because of al-Qaedaâ€™s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaedaâ€™s ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing. Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.
â€œDoes al-Qaeda still constitute an â€˜existentialâ€™ threat?â€ asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents. Kilcullen, who as an Australian army officer commanded counter-insurgency units in East Timor, recently served as an adviser in the Pentagon and is now a senior adviser on counterterrorism at the State Department. He was referring to the argument about whether the terrorism of the twenty-first century endangers the very existence of the United States and its allies, as the Soviet Unionâ€™s nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might).
â€œI think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,â€ Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. â€œIf you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.â€ But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. â€œSo because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.
â€œIt is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,â€ he concluded. “Our reaction is what can cause the damage. Itâ€™s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.â€
This is the point that righties are, universally, too stupid or too scared to get. The pathetic little weenies hide behind their keyboards and do everything they can to jettison the Bill of Rights and the balance of powers because they are afraid and they think a big almighty dictatorial President can save them.
Whoever the next President is, let me say now that it is not enough for this individual to want to end the war in Iraq. I want this individual to lead the American people away from the fear and hysteria the Bushies have cultivated to their advantage. The American people need to understand that, although terrorists can take lives and knock down buildings, the only thing the nation has to fear is, well, fear itself.
Update: See The Anonymous Liberal.