The Messengers From Hell
On my visit to Barnes & Noble the other day, I saw a little sign informing that the store will open late on September 11. The management invited the employees to spend the morning in quiet reflection.
All over America, the bosses, from the supervisor to the frothing madman who runs the Justice Department, want us to be silent, mum, and quiet. "Take two minutes of silence," they counsel. As if we didn't have a whole year of loud, garish silence; a whole year in which nobody "respectable" dared to point out the lurid nakedness of our court-appointed emperor.
Americans fell silent when a felonious cabal decided that getting their boy into the White House was more important than maintaining even the pretense of democratic elections.
Americans remained silent while people were "disappeared" into unknown prisons by unknown courts and Big Brother expanded His tentacles; when the faint pretense of constitutional protection was cast away by a "conservative" administration and a rubber-stamping congress. Today, the government can lock up people in secret and deny them legal representation. That is the reality. And America is mostly silent.
Americans reacted with silence when American power was used to murder innocent strangers at their wedding feast. Stories of mass graves of prisoners in Afghanistan were greeted with more silence.
Silence is addictive. Silence on one issue leads to silence on another.
Do we really think the dead are honored by our silence and complicity?
Let's talk in memory of the dead. Talking is the essence of democracy. Let's take two minutes, or two hours, or as much time each of us can spare, to talk about what really happened, about why it happened, and about what it means for the future.
Let's talk about all the victims of terrorism, not just those who happen to be Americans. And let's pay a special attention to those whose death was planned or paid for by Washington.
Let's talk about all the victims: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, China, the Philippines, Laos, East Timor, Greece, Turkey, Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, Columbia, Panama, Haiti, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa, Rwanda, Zaire, Sudan, Somalia, New York, and Afghanistan.
There is so much we don't know about September 11, and the government seems determined that we continue not to know. What happened to all the repeated warnings about possible terror attacks? Why did nobody high up paid attention? Why was the administration, in defiance of common sense, so uninterested in terror before September 11?
The most important effect of September 11 was a massive wave of denial. The denial of responsibility for allowing the attack to happen is unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg.
The denial is understandable, but it is still necessary to tell the truth: the terror attacks on the twin towers were successful.
We don't want to recognize that. Evil shouldn't triumph, we say. We don't want to give the perpetrators the pleasure of knowing they succeeded. But we fool only ourselves when we pretend we have a choice.
The attack on the twin towers was a message from hell. It was one of the rare cases in which blaming the messengers is totally justified. They are indeed guilty of mass murder.
But once we're done with that, we must attend to the message. It isn't wise to ignore messages from hell.
We must open the charred envelope and read the words inside; we are not the first to have received it. Sooner or later every empire gets it. It is the same message Nebuchadnezzar received on the wall of his party hall: "Mene, mene, tekel, uparsin" (Daniel 5:25).
I haven't spoken with anybody in al Qaeda. I take it from Bin Laden's pronouncements that his strategic goal was the destruction of the United States. The attack on the twin towers must be understood as a tactical move within that strategy. Obviously, the attack did not destroy the United States, nor could it. The question is: did the attack push world affairs in the direction of the downfall of the U.S.? The answer is a resounding yes, on three accounts.
First, the terrorists proved to their intended audience that a clandestine band, with total commitment and a modicum of intelligence and money, can strike a hard blow at the center of American power. The proof of American vulnerability is necessary to recruit people to the dream of destroying America. That goal was achieved.
Worse, what was achieved is a recast of the American role in the world in the language of romance. To understand that, ask yourself: if Bin Laden were to produce a movie in Hollywood about the attack, to which American movie will that production most resemble? My answer is Star Wars.
With no more that $30,000, the terrorist managed to kill 3,000 people, destroy two symbols of American power and cause damage of over 60 billion dollars, nullifying in the process a "defense" budget of over 300 billion dollars that was set up against them. That is exactly the message of Star Wars: the triumph of belief, nimbleness and dedication over raw power and size.
That aspect of the attack is the most potent source of American denial. In the process of committing their crimes, the terrorists appropriated American dreams and fantasies. In their religious faith, entrepreneurial spirit, dedication and can-do attitudes, the terrorists displayed much of what Americans consider heroism.
The terrorists were not heroes; they were murderers. But the language of romance can easily dress up murder with heroism. Just ask yourself how many innocent people died during the adventures of Luke Skywalker, or notice how easily the murderous U.S. military in Vietnam was portrayed by Hollywood as heroic.
The prohibition against understanding what happened in terms that we may share with the terrorists corrupts the public discourse. Instead of looking for the fullest narrative we focus on a single aspect of it: the victims and our own pain and fears. We end up with a caricature, and not a very good or perceptive one.
It is part of the achievement of the terrorists that Americans cannot address what had happened publicly except in baby talk. That achievement underscores the two other reasons for describing September 11 as a tactical success for the terrorists. Both result from the American reaction.
Recruiting terrorists requires tough choices and oppression. Both were provided immediately by the Bush administration in its reaction to September 11. Israel stepped up its repression of Palestinians with full U.S. support. In Afghanistan, a puppet regime has been created, and the U.S. is refusing to help it in any way beyond making it more repressive. In Pakistan, the military dictator has just given himself control over the constitution with full American support. Finally, the U.S. is preparing to attack Iraq in order to place there another friendly dictator. The Middle East is moving from a place of oppressive regimes supported by the U.S. to a place of oppressive regimes built and maintained by the U.S. And this happens on the background of already existing massive popular animosity towards the U.S.
Now add to that Bush's general disdain for the rest of humanity, and his request that people chose whether they are "with us or with the terrorists." Of course, many, especially among the local elites, will choose to side with the U.S. But even their support will be tepid, tempered by resentment, a sense of growing humiliation, and the knowledge, based on past experience, that the U.S. is an untrustworthy ally. Many, however, especially among the masses, will choose against the U.S. Now recall how few people were needed to pull off September 11.
A year later, the terrorists succeeded in making the U.S. look even uglier than before. They will claim that this ugly, self-centered, and cruel America is the real America. That is not true. America is large and contains multitudes. But the longer the Bush administration is allowed to project this ugly image without any significant brakes applied by the American people, the more attractive this view will appear to the rest of the world and especially to the people of the Middle East.
The White House understood immediately the psychological dimension of September 11. The attack on Afghanistan, which in all likelihood killed more innocent people than died in the twin towers, was designed less to defend the U.S. than to defend the image of the U.S. as a powerful and credible force.
One of the major reasons for the coming attack of Iraq is the desire to further demoralize the Islamic fundamentalists who hope to see the U.S. crumble. The administration reasons that a successful display of military determination and might will undo the effect of September 11. In particular, it will erase the image of the U.S. as a vulnerable "paper tiger."
It may well be that Bin Laden underestimated the ferocity of the U.S. reaction. Whether he is dead or alive, it is not true however that that reaction is achieving its goal.
The problem is the belief that the terrorist attacks merely succeeded in a psychological level.
That is not the case. The terrorist attack succeeded because it exposed a real American vulnerability.
In the global village, it pays to be nice. Even a small disaffected group can inflict a debilitating wound on the greatest power. Unfortunately, the U.S. has been abusing and bullying other nations since World War II. Playing nice requires compromise from the Washington elite, and they don't like to compromise.
Furthermore, in religious fanaticism, America finds an enemy with an eternally long breath. Demoralizing such an enemy requires more than military success; it requires the ability to project oneself as the image of the inevitable future. Empires are able to project themselves into the future only as long as they offer hope of integration and peace. The U.S. has lost that power in the last few decades by a dodged commitment to a foreign policy of total hypocrisy and unenlightened self-interest. An attack on Iraq, or even on a dozen other countries, will not change that. On the contrary, the unfettered use of military power is a sign of weakness and will be interpreted as such.
The huge U.S. military budget, which consumes more than half of every tax dollar we pay, is not giving Americans much security. On the contrary, by emboldening the Washington elite to bully other nations, it reduces security. What this military budget does is harm U.S. society by reducing spending on America's real and growing social ills.
The attempt to patch U.S. credibility by increasing the defense budget, transforming the U.S. into a close, fortified society, and going for the attack, is guaranteed to increase our vulnerability. It requires giving up the benefits of an open society and increasing the financial burden of sustaining an oversized military. Islamic fanatics are going to correctly identify the new level of military overextension as another nail in the coffin of American power. They are not going to be demoralized. They are going to be elated.
The attack on the twin tower was a message from hell. If America is to avoid a much more painful collapse, we must accept September 11 as a true defeat for those who believed the use of American power abroad has no consequences.
It isn't a defeat for the vast majority of Americans. It is a defeat for the small minority in Washington who sees lording over the world as their God given right. We must restrain this minority, else they bring America down with their power craze.
[Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an unabashed "ops-simist." He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword - and sometimes not. Gabriel is the Middle East Editor of YellowTimes.org's News From the Front, located at the following URL: http://www.YellowTimes.org/nftf.html. He lives in the United States.]
Gabriel Ash encourages your comments: gash@YellowTimes.org