Unspeakable Truth

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 — 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-Qaeda’s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda’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.

“Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” 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 Union’s nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might).

“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” 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. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. “Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”

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.

61 thoughts on “Unspeakable Truth

  1. Comparing our mess in Iraq to WWII is applicable in one regard. Most historians agree that Hitler screwed up when he invaded Russia. This set up a 2-front war which robbed Nazis of resources and doomed the 3rd Reich. George had a winnable and justified war in Afghanistan, but our resources are being squandered on a 2nd front in a grab for regional influence and oil.

    We have accomplished something in Iraq that righties ignore. We invaded and are trying to occupy land that’s sacred to Moslems. This has energized the jihad; Bush deserves the recruiter-of-the-year award for Islamic radicals for the last 3 years. People from the mid-east who were ambivalent about America will fund and die for causes to eject us from Iraq.

    If that’s to complex for a rightie to understand, let me propose this simpler analogy. You can’t put out a fire with kerosene. Sadly, our C-in-C has the authority to order more kerosene.

    The argument that we have to fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here is ridiculous. Are they building fleets of ships or bombers to invade? This war can’t be won with conventional tactics; our GIs in Iraq are targets that were out of reach, but not now! A war 10,000 miles from the US is expensive as hell..

    Fight this war smart. Stop the occupation that fuels the jihad. Seriously address the issues in Israel & Palistine. (This will take years.) Recognize that poverty and injustice provide fertile ground for jihadists; Hamas & Hezbolah are huge charitable organizations who provide medical and food supplies and gain the loyalty of the people they serve. (From this pool, they recruit jihadists.) It should not be impossible for the legitimate governments and moderate Moslems to adopt the tactic of providing for the people and persuading the folks on the bottom rungs of the ladder to be less violent. (Yes, it would take years.)

    Yes, the military still has a mission, finding the training camps where jihadists train and prepare. When possible, provide information to the local governments for them to clear out the radicals. If it’s not possible, we may have to take action, depending on the REAL threat.

    I am waiting for a presidential candidate from either party who will articulate fighting SMART!

  2. In regards to the person that wanted to know why President Bush didn’t just call up all the other countries and ask them to raid, arrest, or even kill known terrorists (ie, police action instead of war), that is really a very simplistic view of the world and hardly takes into account real world politics or the extent to which terrorism is supported by states as proxies.

    One must first suppose that all of these nations were friendly towards the United States. Why would Libya, for instance, raid, arrest or kill known terrorists in their country? Particularly if a) they had given them safe haven and thus felt no threat from them or at least felt the state had the ability to control the terrorists actions within that particular state by withdrawing protection? or, b) the entire purpose of giving such terrorists safe haven (if not direct material, monetary, human and political support), is to be able to inflict damage through a proxy that provides an essential cover of deniability? Or, c) such organizations enjoy popular support within the nation or have reached some upspoken agreement of co-existence within the state and to attack, arrest, or kill such terrorists would be contrary to the safety of the state and survival of the government?

    In which case, where does it leave us? How should you act towards a state that uses terrorism as a plausibly deniable act of war without suffering the consequences? What sort of re-assurances, monetary, political and even military, would you give a state in order to motivate them or provide them with protection in order to act against such parasites? What if said state was effectively an ally that provided you with the major portion of the primary resource that fuels your economy?

    These are the questions that govern who you attack militarily, who you isolate, who you support, etc. Questions like “why didn’t we call up these countries”, yada, yada, yada, are essentially as stupid as the one’s that ask why we didn’t attack Saudi Arabia, all things considered (this, of course, being the allied state with a major resource that fuels our economy, as well as many other nations, and the ability to maintain a military – I’m sure North Korea and Iran would have loved that).

    However, if you’ve been watching international news, you may have noticed over the last few years many of our allied countries have done just that – rounded up the terrorists.

    So, the short answer is, you act politically when necessary to motivate actions, you use military when necessary…you use whatever is necessary, most expedient and viable to address each state according to it’s status, complicity or cooperation.

  3. A rightie justifies what has happened by saying, “At least Bush did something.” Snarking at Clinton and Reagan and Carter for not going over there back then and exacting payment for the Beirut, Lebanon barracks, the USS Cole and the Iran hostage affair. They don’t care that we’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest – at least Bush did something. Very Christian point of view – whatever happened to ‘turn the other cheek’? What is beginning to happen now is Christian against Christian; that is, anti-war Christian against pro-war Christian. Who will win? I hate to say it but it looks like the pro-war Christians will. I don’t see any way out of this except to impeach or charge with treason Bush and Cheney and I just don’t see that happening. I think the Democrats have decided that to impeach or charge with treason would call the wrath of the Republicans down on their heads and that its more important not to do that so they can govern – and maybe there is even more political calculation to it than that – maybe they really do think it will help them to win the 2008 election. I don’t think the impeachment or charging with treason of Bush/Cheney would make a difference when 2008 rolls around. I think this next election is the Democrats to lose, I really do.

  4. “The military has a mission, finding training camps where the jihadis prepare and train”.

    Exactly how do you suppose the military do this if it is in a country that is, at least, unfriendly towards us or, at the least, would indeed spark a regional conflageration and greater Jihad (such as Pakistan)?

    Your demands are contrary. Which is it? We are sparking regional war and creating terrorists or we should kill every terrorist we can wherever we can with our military, damn the consequences?

  5. Let;s say a dirty bomb were to go off in San Francisco. We are not being prepared for that possibility.
    On the contrary, the Bush hysteria is feuling a poor reaction.

  6. Maha…were you addressing me or someone else here?

    My I ask why you fear doing something greater than “police actions”? You did not address my questions:

    What acts do you take against state sponsored terrorism? Or, at least, state protected terrorism? What sort of proof do you need to take such actions?

    And, to reiterate a question earlier, what denominator and/or actor would have to occur/participate for you to act against it?

    I think it’s fair to ask that considering you and your compatriots continue to paint the “right” as militants who want to bomb everyone (which, I might add, is completely false representation since I personally consider the acts to date to be remarkably restrained considering the possible number of states complicit).

  7. kat-missouri: Why do you jump to the unsupported opinion that I fear doing something greater than “police actions”? You have no idea what my opinion is. You can’t see beyong the straw-man liberal living in your head.

    But I will be accommodating and help you out; here are links in the post above that you were too lazy to click.





    Time and time again, the Bush Administration’s fear and hubris and ignorance become puppet strings in jihadists’ hands. We might as well invite al Qaeda into the Pentagon and let them plan our security policies.You righties think you are being “tough.” The fact is, you are pathetic, sniveling cowards, and the jihadists are playing you like a fiddle. Get a spine, and a brain, and see the truth.

    You did not address my questions:

    I’m not your monkey. See commenting rules, especially #7e.

  8. Dear Kat – You addressed me in #59. [Note from maha: Comment was deleted.] Your attitude seems to support the stated policy of the president that he will go after terrorists wherever they are. There are issues of soverignty. The world at large, including non-terrorist nations, takes a dim view of the declaration that we have the right to bomb anyone, anywhere, anytime as long as we think they are ‘terrorists’. Our pis-poor batting average on getting facts right compounds the problem. That’s a big reason why support for our Iraq policies worldwide are 20%.

    If administration policies went unchecked, I can see the day when the US will be on the receiving end of sanctions designed to put our economy on the skids. The biggest bully on the block may be able to beat up anyone, but he can’t beat up everyone. A little squeeze on mid-east oil could throw us into a recession.

    We need to recover the ‘high moral ground’ we lost over the past 6 years with the international community. That’s a much bigger issue that a terrorist camp. We can’t go rompin-stompin’ all over the planet, like it’s our playground. The policy of killing anyone who does not love us ’til everyone loves us – isn’t working. And the world at large is getting pissed; that’s a bigger problem than terrorism.

  9. Doug — I deleted #59 for violating posting rules. And since we’re getting too many trolls who can’t mind their manners, I’m closing comments on this post.

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