September 11, 2001

Written September, 2001.

The despicable terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 have apparently shocked commentators here in America so greatly that they have forgotten their history and now are referring to the “kamikazes” attacking Pearl Harbor, erroneously placing the formation of that distinguished corps of Japanese patriots, the “tokkou-tai”, at the beginning rather than the end of the Pacific war. But what’s a little historical inaccuracy among friends, when we are looking for apt analogies for horrific disasters fomented by villainous foes and causing major loss of life?

True, our commentators could have chosen Hiroshima, or Dresden, or any other number of equally or more hideous war scenes from recent human history as the object of their analogy; but remember, in both those cases we were the good guys; plus, they did not occur on American soil! Ah, American soil. The mere words evoke images of that fine, proud, sparkling, rich, unique, um, well it’s basically just dirt, but anyway it’s dirt that literally forms the sacred ground upon which our blessed country stands. (The commentators may be forgiven for failing to bring up the little detail that the remote Pacific islands of Hawai’i were “American” soil only by virtue of their being stolen from the Hawaiians by corporate interests a short 50 years previously.)
In any case, sixty years ago it was the nasty Japs; now it’s the nasty Arabs springing these despicable attacks on us. America needs its villains. And as the recent movie Pearl Harbor should have reminded us, December 7, 1941 is a day which does indeed still live in infamy in the mind of the average American, inexorably bound to the image of the deceitful, grunting, short, cruel Japanese depicted so faithfully in that same movie. So it is no surprise that the Pearl Harbor analogy came instantly to the mind of not one but virtually all commentators, as well as even political figures, whom one could have charitably expected to be a bit more sensitive, who regurgitated “day of infamy” slogans.

But let’s stop here a minute and remember a grand old American tradition: positive thinking. Look on the bright side! For instance, due to the cowardly terrorist attacks, one poor guy in Texas has had his execution delayed. In other words, the terrorists managed to frustrate the best efforts of Texas’ new governor Rick Perry, a proud “fry ‘em now” successor to the man who is now the leader of the free world. I’m sure the poor death row inmate is appalled that the cost in human life required to delay his execution ranges into the thousands (mere hundreds probably would not have sufficed), but is still certainly thanking his lucky stars.

On the other hand, one of the worst effects of the bombings was having to listen to a horrible, off-key, bicameral choral rendition of “God Bless America” by our elected representatives to the US Congress, standing proudly on the steps of the US Capitol Building. Believe me, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir does a much better job with this song. These guys should all have some kind of operation done on their voice boxes to make sure they don’t try to sing again. What’s worse, the song came after the delivery of ringing pronouncements of support for President Bush in his relentless fight to track down and punish the vile evildoers. As if there was maybe some possibility that they were, like, not going to support him? And they emphasized that their support was to be wholly non-partisan. As if they were going to support him, but maybe only in some kind of partisan way? And all of this, as if their support, or the “strongly-worded” resolution they passed, made any difference? Any more than made by the flags now mindlessly being flown throughout America to show our support for, um, what was it supposed to be?

The catastrophe also meant that we had to sit, wringing our hands, through the first live speech by our new President from the Oval Office. Sounding and looking like he badly needed both new speechwriters and some quickie teleprompter lessons (assuming the personality transplant is not possible), George reconfirmed, as if that were necessary, that he would bring to the crisis the approximate leadership skills and decisive resolve of his English Springer Spaniel Spotty (daughter of his father’s mutt Millie). Having to listen to this dreck is really adding insult to injury. Did George W. absolutely have to include in his speech the bizarre, jarring quote from the Christian Bible book of Psalms, apparently indicating that George does indeed think we are walking through the valley of death (hush! don’t tell the financial markets!), but that we will be OK because God is with us?

In looking at the pronouncements of the President and other government officials and media commentators, we find a common thread: we are going to “track down”, “find”, “search for”, “bring to justice”, and “punish” the perpetrators. Here we find a classic example of America’s inability to do even the most basic of adaptive thinking. Most of the guys who did this can’t be found or punished or brought to justice because they are now little tiny shreds of flesh attached to collapsed girders at the site of what used to be the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. The people who helped them directly can be found quite easily, and apparently did not even really try to cover their tracks; their efforts seem, rightly, to have been successfully oriented to avoid detection prior to carrying out their terrorist acts. If they are caught, they will spend 20 years in the American justice system getting great legal support paid for by the American taxpayer, after which if we are still executing people they will be executed. So what.

These particular terrorists, and their supporters and sponsors, in other words, don’t care about being, or may even want to be, searched for, tracked down, found, brought to justice, and punished. America’s goal should be simple—to prevent future similar terrorist acts. Trying to accomplish this by new airport procedures which cost American air passengers another two billion dollars a year just plays into the hands of the terrorists, whose goal, let us not forget, is simply to inflict damage, whether financial or psychological, on America. After all, our current airport procedures have been in effect for years with no major security problems. Whatever America does, it should be prioritzed according to, and judged by, the ultimately simple criterion of whether it contributes to eliminating future such acts.

But there’s another aspect of this story that strikes me. Let’s assume that a child murders his father. Certainly the a priori assumption would be that the child was at fault, especially if we had heard stories about the problems the child had had in the past, or threats he had made about his parents. But in practice, no situation is completely one-sided, and neither is this one. Certainly the terrorists’ utter hatred of American and their raw desire to inflict all possible pain and damage on America is pathological. Certainly the terrorists must not be allowed to continue such brazen acts, and if America knows terrorists that are likely to do so it should take the appropriate steps to neutralize them. At the same time, these terrorists did not emerge from a vacuum. Their extreme anger at the US can itself be taken as evidence of the depth of the feeling that history has engendered in them. The US has without doubt taken positions in the past, in many cases apparently driven by corporate and political interests, which are in fact destructive and detremental to one side while exhibiting favoritism or undue support to the other. I am by no means trying to say that the terrorists had a point, rather that there is a sequence of historical events that led to their emergence. And America’s response would be more effective in the long-term, and more understandable, if it incorporated this realization. I find it amazing that not a single commenator has alluded to this possibility in any way whatsoever.

In the end, the damage done by the terrorists is more pernicious and long-lasting, and will exact a greater cost from the American public than even they could have imagined: American-style public posturing, handwringing, and faux-introspection for years and decades to come; endless tear-jerking stories and books about the victims and the survivors; thousands of hours of vapid network news coverage. On the other hand, the bad guys did accomplish one important goal: get Chandra Levy and Gary Condit off the news, permanently. Dr. and Ms. Levy, try bringing up Chandra again now! Take that!

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