Just last week, a jury began to deliberate on the fate of Zacarias Moussaoui, who may or may not have been the missing 20th hijacker in the September 11th attacks. At the same time, newly released recordings of 911 operators responding to calls from those about to die that day in the two towers were splashed across front pages nationwide. (“All I can tell you to do is sit tight. All right? Because I got almost every fireman in the city coming…”)
Over four and a half years later, September 11, 2001 won’t go away. And little wonder. It remains the defining moment in our recent lives, the moment that turned us from a country into a “homeland.” With Iraq in a state of ever-devolving deconstruction, the President’s and Vice President’s polling figures in tatters, Karl Rove (Bush’s “brain”) again threatened with indictment, the Republican Party in disarray, and New Orleans as well as the Mississippi coast still largely unreconstructed ruins, perhaps it’s worth revisiting just what exactly was defined in that moment.
A DIY World of Terrorism
The brilliance of the al-Qaeda assault that day lay in its creation of a vision of destruction out of all proportion to the organization’s modest strength. At best, al-Qaeda had adherents in the thousands as well as a “headquarters” and training camps located in the backlands of one of the poorest countries on the planet.
Its leaders made the bold decision to launch an attack on the political and the financial capitals of what was then regularly termed the globe’s “sole hyperpower.” Although this face-off might have seemed the ultimate definition of asymmetric warfare, in terms of theatrical value — no small thing in our world of 24/7 news and entertainment — the struggle turned out to be eerily symmetrical. By the look of it (but only the look), the Earth’s lone superpower met its match that day. With box cutters, mace, two planes, and the use of Microsoft piloting software to speed their learning curve, a few determined fanatics, ready to kill and die, took aim at the two most iconic (if uninspired) buildings at the financial heart of the American system and managed to top the climax of any disaster film ever shot. What they created, in fact, was a Hollywood-style vision of the apocalypse, enough so that our media promptly dubbed the spot where those two towers crumbled in those vast clouds of dust and smoke, “Ground Zero,” a term previously reserved for an atomic explosion.
This was — let’s be blunt — an extraordinary accomplishment for a tiny band of men with one of the more extreme religious/political ideologies around; and, if the testimony under CIA interrogation of al-Qaeda’s Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is to be believed — summaries were released at the Moussaoui sentencing hearing — what happened seems to have stunned even him. (“According to the CIA summary, he said he ‘had no idea that the damage of the first attack would be as catastrophic as it was.’”)
And yet, so many years later, there have been no follow-up attacks here. This was obviously never the equivalent of breaking through military lines in war. There were no al-Qaeda troops poised to pour through that breach, ransack the rubble, and spread across New York; nor, like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor (to which the 9/11 assault was often compared), did al-Qaeda launch a simultaneous set of strikes elsewhere. Of this sort of activity the group was incapable. Such acts were far beyond its means.
By the look of it, there weren’t even sleeper cells in the
Crossing the Line, Apocalypse Bound
Despite the limitless look of the destruction on September 11, 2001, the dangers al-Qaeda posed were of a limited nature. After all, it took the group a long time to meticulously plan each of its attacks, whether on the WTC, or the USS Cole in a harbor in
Their attacks could be devastating locally, killing startling numbers, but that would be the end of matters for months or even years to come. Other than a finely tuned sense of the power of timing, theatrics, and publicity (which indicated just how “modern” a group calling for the return of a medieval Caliphate really was), the only thing al-Qaeda could brandish was an implicit futuristic threat: That someday they, or another group like them, might get their hands on an actual apocalyptic weapon, leaking out of the arsenals or labs of one of the two former Cold War superpowers or from those of proliferating lesser powers. Then they might create an actual Ground Zero, subjecting some city somewhere, possibly here, to a genuinely apocalyptic moment.
Certain analysts had long feared just this. One was Robert Jay Lifton who, back in 1999, wrote a far-seeing if little noticed book, Destroying the World to Save It, about the Aum Shinrikyo cult in
In 1995, his followers let imperfectly produced Sarin loose in the
This was an insight that lay just below the surface of our world until September 11, 2001, but that everyone evidently sensed — otherwise that Ground Zero label would never have come so naturally to mind. Thought about with a cold eye, the single most important set of acts the Bush administration could have undertaken — other than bringing to justice those who had launched the murderous assaults — would have been to nail down the globe’s nuclear as well as chemical and biological arsenals, and the Cold War labs that had produced them. It’s worth recalling that the largely forgotten anthrax killer or killers, who closed down Congress and killed postal workers that same September, used weaponized anthrax, evidently from the American weapons labs. In addition, genuine national security would have meant putting full-scale efforts into reversing the global proliferation of nuclear weapons — rather than just focusing ineptly on a couple of rogue states you were eager to whack anyway. You would certainly not have broken open the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, encouraged a state like
But of course nothing like this happened. In that terrible moment when a choice might have been made between the vision of apocalypse and the reality of al-Qaeda, between a malign version of the smoke-and-mirrors Wizard of Oz and the pathetic little man behind the curtain, the Bush administration opted for the vision in a major way. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and other top officials chose to pump up al-Qaeda into a global enemy worthy of a new Cold War, a generational struggle that might comfortably be filled with smaller, regime-change-oriented, “preventive” hot wars against hopelessly outgunned enemies who — unlike in those Cold War days — would have no other superpower to call on for aid.
Hyper about Power
That radioactive decision, not the 9/11 attacks, determined the shape of our world. Bush declared his “crusade” — make no bones about it — against Islam (though al Qaeda was the fringiest of “Islamic” groups) and the
In its own way, al-Qaeda was ready to accept the Bush version of itself. After all, our President had just elevated it into the major leagues of enemyhood, right up there with the big boys of history. Via various videos, including one just before the 2004 presidential elections, al-Qaeda’s leaders entered into a thoroughly bizarre “conversation” with the Bush administration, which, in press conferences, answered in kind. What a compliment! Who could reject a recruiting tool of that sort, right out of someone’s
On their part, Bush and his cohorts were all-too-ready to dance with this minor set of apocalypts, in part because they were themselves into fantasies of world domination — and considered themselves anything but mad. With visions of a “New Rome” — and a one-party democracy at home — dancing in their heads, they took that handy, terrifying image of the apocalypse in downtown New York and translated it into every sort of terror (including mushroom clouds threatening to go off over American cities and unmanned aerial vehicles spraying poisons along the East coast). In this way, they stampeded the American people and Congress into their crusade of choice.
The story of what followed you know well. Miraculously, al-Qaeda grew and the
In retrospect, the Bush administration badly misread the
Today, we stand in those ruins, whether we know it or not, though the Ground Zero of the Bush assault was obviously not here, but in
Just a quick look at the situation in Iraq today reveals levels of chaos and a “steady diet of carnage” that not long ago might have seemed unimaginable. The Bush people now find themselves oscillating weekly between desperate policy non-alternatives, while a low-level, vicious, Lebanon-style civil war develops on the ground. Just last week, “Iraqi troops” with
For one thing, it’s now clear that there may no longer be “Iraqi troops.” In this case, the attackers turned out to be a Kurdish unit with American advisors, evidently perfectly happy to slaughter Sadr’s backers. What exists, what we’re “standing up” (so we can “stand down,” as the President regularly puts it) are Shiite units, Kurdish units, and even relatively modest units of Sunni troops. As Robert Dreyfuss recently commented, all of this signals “that the
Meanwhile, the country is officially without a government. As Dreyfuss sums the situation up, “
So here’s a future scenario to imagine: Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish troops all roaming urban neighborhoods, all engaging in revenge killings against the others, all with their own American advisors. It is no longer beyond the bounds of possibility that Americans could find themselves on every side of a future civil war; or, no less likely, that all sides could be attacking American troops — or both; and so, of course, could the Iranians whom the Bush administration, in another catch-22, threatens to attack and yet desperately needs.
In the meantime, the American air war against Iraqi cities quietly ratchets up and, amid the ruins, huge permanent American bases like the 19 square-mile Al-Asad airbase in Anwar Province — with its 17,000 troops, Burger King, Pizza Hut, car dealership Yellow and Blue bus routes, and “PX jammed with customers” — thrive. Only recently, the administration requested from Congress hundreds of millions more dollars to construct stronger perimeter defenses, better runways with permanent lighting, more permanent dining facilities and the like at the largest of these bases.
While the basics of everyday life in urban Iraq continue to peel away and the Iraqi oil industry looks to be on its last legs, the Pentagon delivers electricity, potable water, and fuel, not to speak of i-Pods, televisions, Internet access, and other goodies to our massive bases, some of which, visiting reporters tell us, now resemble small American towns and to which the administration hopes to withdraw most of its troops sooner or later. At a time when Daniel Speckhard, director of the U.S. Iraq Reconstruction Management Office, is putting the country on notice that it can “no longer count on U.S. reconstruction funds,” you might forgive an Iraqi for wondering how the administration that “liberated” their country could have done so much so efficiently for its soldiers and yet be so incapable of doing much of anything for the rest of the country.
The Rubble of Victory
At the moment, our bases exist like little untouched
It’s true that some neocons once imagined chaos as a kind of acceptable fallback position in the
“Imperial overreach” is too fancy a term for what the Bush administration has actually done. While its officials have talked a great game when it came to achieving “victory” in
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), where this article first appeared, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.