Archive for category 9-11
President Obama has been in office just under two and a half years, and besides noting that he is the first black President, there is little agreement on how to categorize his Presidency so far.
The right has always tried to belittle him. First they claimed he couldn’t get anything done (sometimes asserting that he had never accomplished anything in life — an odd claim, given his career!), but then the 111th Congress passed health care and closed with a flurry of activity. For better or worse Obama and the Democratic Congress accomplished a lot in two years, no one can accuse him of inactivity. Then Obama was cast as a radical President, driving up the debt in order to pursue an agenda that ignores economic reality.
His foreign policy was criticized as ill thought out — he was supposedly snubbing allies and giving haven to adversaries. These criticisms were ad hoc rather than systematic. He might be criticized for being too friendly to the Saudis one day, then for jilting an important Saudi ally the next. The message the Republicans tried to send: he’s in over his head.
The left has also been dismayed by Obama. When the exuberance of electing a young charismatic President promising change wore off, Obama’s centrist pragmatism was a let down. Where was the fighter to take on special interests, close Guantanamo, get us out of Iraq and Afghanistan and take us down a new path? Even health care reform, passed by the slimmest of margins, didn’t satisfy the left — why wasn’t Obama out there shaking the bully pulpit and pushing for a single payer system or something more dramatic? Rather than confronting the Republicans he was trying to deal with them, and in the eyes of the left, they were eating him alive.
The left also is dismayed by his foreign policy. They note, accurately, that the Obama foreign policy is not that much different than the Bush foreign policy after 2007. To many on the left Obama is a sell out, promising change to get elected and then governing in a way that serves the inside the beltway elite, just like President Bush before him.
The fact that these narratives about Obama’s Presidency are contradictory and all over the place reflect that his Presidency remains undefined. He has far more accomplishments than Bill Clinton did at this point in his tenure, and remains more popular than Ronald Reagan was two and a half years in. But there is still uncertainty — who is Barack Obama really? What kind of President is he?
This week President Obama went a long ways towards etching out his own definition. In releasing his birth certificate, and subsequently subjecting Donald Trump to considerable ridicule, he grabbed the high road and was able to speak about the birthers as being petty political opportunists, playing games when real issues are at stake. Then with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in a risky and bold raid, he threw off the narrative of him as the vacillater in chief, unable to make a clear decision.
The President could have chosen a safer option of obliterating the region with bombs, thereby avoiding questions of whether it was a “legal assassination.” He undertook an operation that very easily could have gone bad, and not only trusted the military, but took full responsibility. For most Americans who haven’t been following the competing Obama narratives, where dissatisfaction on the left and hostility from the right have seemed to pin Obama into an uncomfortable corner, this is the first real glimpse of Obama as a leader. He comes off as not only Presidential, but firm, resolute and certainly not naive.
Suddenly those who tried to belittle Obama as being a horrible leader, just a ‘community organizer,’ look as petty as Trump touting the birther issue. That’s gossip politics, ad hominems designed for overt political purposes. You can dislike Obama’s health care reform, think he’s wrong on the budget and blame him for the economy, but a gutless deer with his eyes caught in the headlights he is not.
Moreover, Obama’s putting his stamp on foreign policy. He has shifted US emphasis away from Europe and towards the Mideast and Asia. His move of Panetta to Defense and Petraeus to the CIA also illustrate the way in which defense policy is increasingly interdependent with intelligence. As major war becomes less likely, smaller operations become more of a focus. This isn’t a new idea — Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was headed the same direction. The mix of shifting emphasis from Europe to the Mideast and Asia along with a rethinking of the core structure and strategy of the military suggests a new security policy identity.
One can see the outlines of a true foreign policy legacy, though still in its nascent stages. Obama has the chance to conclude the original ‘war on terror,’ and implement a new defense identity built on counter-terrorism and a meshing of military and intelligence capacities in order to deal with 21st century threats. That, combined with a shift of emphasis away from Europe would create an entirely new foreign policy, though arguably one more in line with the realities of the new century. This also isn’t an abrupt break from the Bush policy; rather, the neo-conservative bravado has been replaced by a more diplomatic touch — but even President Bush shifted tone after 2006. This suggests that for all the discontent, we’re likely seeing the development of what will become a new bipartisan foreign policy consensus.
Of course, President Obama’s ultimate legacy will depend greatly on the economy and whether or not Americans are in a more hopeful and optimistic mood a year and a half from now. Still, I would not be surprised if the Bin Laden killing is seen as a focal point in shaping the Obama Presidency. In a real sense Obama has retaken control of the capacity define his own Presidency and not have it be trapped by competing political narratives. The young President new on the job and perhaps overly cautious now appears Presidential and a real leader.
To parlay this into longer term political success and a second term he has to expand that leadership to the economic realm and show results there as well. And, as hard as it was to get Bin Laden, the task of turning around an economy is far more complex and subject to unexpected difficulties. Still, last week was a very good week for President Obama.
In my Comparative Politics class Tuesday we had assigned readings covering terrorism and Islamic extremism as a revolutionary force. I joked to the class that when I made the syllabus last December I purposefully put these readings for our first class meeting after Bin Laden’s killing. The chapter about Islam as a revolutionary force (Sheri Berman, Islamism, Revolution and Civil Society) focuses on countries like Egypt, still stable when the article was written. The chapter on terrorism (Martha Crenshaw, The Causes of Terrorism) nicely set up a discussion of Bin Laden’s death and what it means. That made for a lively class discussion!
I think that Osama Bin Laden’s death symbolizes an end of an era. For a decade Bin Laden has been the public face of Islam for many Americans, arousing fear, anger and antipathy. Visions of Islam defeating the West or sharia law spreading to places like Oklahoma created almost surreal bouts of fear and distrust. That is starting to fade away.
Since 9-11 al qaeda has had a meager record. Unable to score any spectacular attacks in recent years, their message no longer resonates in the Arab world. The youth today are less prone to be swayed by the rhetoric Bin Laden used in the 90s. They are more in tune with the rest of the world as the information revolution and globalization make it harder to maintain isolation.
In the 90s this was part of the problem. The encroachment of Western ideas into traditional Muslim communities was a threat, raising fears about losing identity and traditions to a godless, souless West, addicted to oil and willing to arm corrupt tyrannies. It was this first phase of globalization that both Benjamin Barber (Jihad vs. McWorld) and Samuel Huntington (Clash of Civilizations) sounded alarms about. This phase emboldened Bin Laden as it was easy to stir up fear of the West and especially the US.
But now in 2011 we’re seeing generational change, as the youth are more immersed in modern culture and thus less enamored with the puritanical teachings of al qaeda or the Taliban. Few want to go back to 622 AD. Even those who dislike western foreign policy don’t believe it’s feasible or desirable to fight a war with the West. The focus now is overturning tyrannies and taking care of their own political destinies.
It’s true that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, who have a history of extremist rhetoric and a diverse membership, could be in a position to dominate new governments once the dictators leave. But there is little reason to expect them to fundamentally threaten the West. If they are too reactionary, they’ll likely face a backlash from their own people — a people who now understand that they can pressure governments and force change. Most of them also reject al qaeda’s agenda or an all out war with the West. To be sure, this will pressure Israel, but Wikileaks documents have revealed that even Hamas is more willing to work with the Jewish state than their public bravado indicates.
With Bin Laden’s death he no longer symbolizes the Arab or Muslim worlds. In the US the perception of Muslims has already improved thanks to the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. In the Arab world the so-called “Arab Spring” has displaced anger at America as the most visible political force. NATO is bombing Libya, another Muslim country, though this time it is in support of a home grown revolution.
Given all of this, I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the death of Osama Bin Laden is also the symbolic death of the danger and threat of Islamic extremism. Not that there is no more terror threat — terrorism is possible any time a hand full of angry people can pull off some kind of deadly violent act. Extremist elements in the Muslim world will remain active for some time. But unless we over-react, the threat is dwindling. Islam will still be a force in politics, but not a violent force bent on confronting the West.
Now the Taliban will be under more pressure to moderate their positions, break with al qaeda completely, and be part of a solution in Afghanistan. Bin Laden’s death helps those elements in the Taliban willing to compromise and share power. In other countries political Islam will look inward and focus on reforming their societies, perhaps more fully exploring the meaning of Islam in a modern world. We may not like the path it takes sometimes, and progress may be excruciatingly slow, but it need not be something to fear.
It is the end of the Bin Laden era. Fear of Islam will diminish in the West, and we will avert the clash of civilization that Bin Laden so hoped to spark. This isn’t because the US killed Bin Laden — al qaeda’s been losing the war for the hearts and minds of the Arab world for years, and fear of Islam has been on the wane in the US — but his death is symbolically important. It’s been a rough ten years; time to move on to something better!
Saturday when Jared Loughner opened fire in Tucson at an event hosted by Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, he not only seriously injured Giffords (who is still fighting for her life), but in all killed at least six people and injured 18 more. One of the dead was nine year old Christina Taylor Green, who was born on September 11, 2001.
When an event like this occurs, as a political scientist my first thought concerns what this says about our political culture. Ultimately, governments reflect the political culture they are built upon. Democracies cannot function without a public willing to tolerate diverse opinions, accept the legitimacy and necessity of an effective opposition, accept electoral defeat, and hand over power when necessary. There must be an understanding that almost everyone agrees on some core values and ideals of the society, the disagreement is how best to achieve them. Thus democracies require an essential unity of purpose, even if there are disagreements on what achieving that purpose means, and the means on how to do so.
The shooting spree is the latest in a series of events that cause some to think the political culture of the United States is drifting away from stable acceptance of democracy to one poisoned by angry and virulent rhetoric, where the two sides see each other as “the enemy,” unwilling to compromise, yet eager to demonize. If this is the case, it’s a more dangerous threat to stability than any of the other problems we face. If our political culture frays, then democracy can perish.
For example, Sarah Palin had a “target” on Giffords, one of twenty districts identified as being in the “crosshairs.” Talk from the tea party movement often uses the rhetoric of revolution and “hunting down” and “taking out” Democrats. Derision of “liberals” by talk radio hosts caricature the left and mock them, often suggesting that they are dangerous to America’s liberty and core interests. The call to “take back” or even “save” America gets made frequently, as President Obama is even labeled a Keynan born Muslim who wants to destroy America. Glenn Beck sheds tears talking about how the country may be in its last days of liberty and prosperity. He wants “real” Americans to rise up and take it back from the “liberals” whose values are foreign and strange.
Yet President Bush and the Republicans got similar treatment five years ago. President Bush was a fascist, a vampire sucking the blood out of the Republic (cover art for The New Yorker magazine), a criminal President leading us into wars out of a lust for oil profits and expanding the reach of corporations. Calls to “take back” and even “save” America were as common then, but common from the left rather than the right. Our freedom and liberty was in danger from corporate America, whose manipulation through campaign contributions and advertising threatened the essence of our democratic values.
Clearly, there has been an edge to American political rhetoric lately. Yes, one can find numerous examples in US history of campaigns fighting dirty, but the depth and emotional power of the media has made this recent bout seem like there are two visions of America, and no room to compromise. Rather than the focus on personal attacks (which was very common in the past) whole sections of the population have been attacked and demonized because of their perspective on the issues of the day.
Yet for all the fear that we might be slipping into an abyss, with our political culture deteriorating, there is hope. The public is not as politicized as it seems. The extremes may wage ideological jihad, but average folk just want the politicians to come up with some common sense solutions to problems. They may veer left (like they did in 2006 and 2008) and then right (like in 2010), but the extremes of each party are rather small. The tea party movement, in fact, already seems to be petering out. Fox and MSNBC may be yelling at teach other, but even the people who watch them deep down don’t see the other side as “evil.” Politics has become like professional wrestling — we expect the trash talk, but know it’s spectacle.
Still, things can get out of control. When President Clinton was elected in 1992, there was a strong anti-Clinton backlash on the right, as militia movements, “survivalists” and gun rights advocates proliferated. Their rhetoric was extreme, often talking about open revolt or civil war. Yet when one man acted on these ideas, Timothy McVeigh, the “movement” folded. McVeigh’s attack on the Oklahoma Federal Building, killing 168 people including 19 children, caused people to pause. The idea of killing Americans and having a real civil war is not what anyone outside the fringe of the fringe wants!
I suspect the act of Jared Loughner, arrested for the killings, may be the impetus for another such “let’s pause and settle down” moment. Republicans will have to admit that warnings about domestic terror and violence were legitimate, they can no longer mock those. But Democrats should admit that however irresponsible Sarah Palin’s rhetoric may have been, neither she nor the tea party can be blamed for the attack. People of Loughner’s ilk are driven by deeper demons. The intense rhetoric and anger on both sides creates the conditions that can influence a McVeigh or Loughner to act.
So far, the political reaction has been good. Both President Obama and House Speaker Boehner spoke out unequivocally against such violence, and more importantly, in favor of unity. As Boehner said, an attack on one who serves in Congress is an attack on all. At base Republicans and Democrats are united in wanting to do what’s best for America, even if they have stark disagreements about what that means. As the human stories come out, people will realize that political passions are not worth violence or pain. We’ll remember we’re really on the same side in important matters.
We are 300 million people trying to create a society that is at peace and prosperous. Perhaps this event will bring back some of what the country felt after 9-11-01, recognition that united we stand, divided we fall. And maybe we’ll rethink the ease in which we talk about violence as legitimate political action.
That is why Christina Taylor Green’s death has a symbolism that can unite. She was born on our most tragic day in recent times, and died on what was arguably the most tragic day for US politics since then. Our country unified around the acts that took place the day she was born, but the difficult and trying years since have divided us. Many have forgotten that sense of unity of purpose that we had after 9-11. Perhaps her tragic death can bring us back together, and push aside the anger and animosity of recent years. Maybe then we can start solving the problems facing us, and make sure her death was not in vain.
The irrationality of Islamophobia is easy to demonstrate. There are very, very few Muslim terrorists, and those who are reflect a political problem in Mideast countries under corrupt governments where the youth lack hope, or in rare cases a backlash against western culture. The adherents of Bin Laden are the exception rather than the rule, and they do not adhere to true Muslim doctrine in the eyes of over 99% of the Islamic world. And from the perspective of Muslims, the real mass killing has been done in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Gaza, with Muslims the victims of state terror. The idea that Muslims are more violent or dangerous is simply wrong.
Yet some people find it easy to make collective broadsides against over a billion innocents. Anger over a Muslim day at an amusement park after Ramadan, opposition to a community Center in New York City and weird claims that Arabs are crossing the border disguised as Mexicans to have babies that will become terrorists in 18 years were typical. Calls for ‘internment camps’ and threats to bomb Mecca have faded, however, as most Americans realize that the over the top rhetoric was both irrational and un-American.
Yet there are a few are still at it. The especially kooky Frank Gaffney seems to think if you have anything to do with a Muslim, you’re infected. He claims that conservative groups that work with Muslims are trying to spread shariah law and indoctrinate American conservatives into supporting Islam. Chief among these alleged insidious traitors are Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist, and former Bush staffer Suhail Khan. I’m kidding, right? Read it here. He claims that the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), associated with the American Conservative Union (ACU) has the goal of indoctrinating conservatives into giving support to Islam and Sharia law.
Gaffney appears to have a Joseph Goebbels approach to propaganda — tell big and outrageous lies with a sense of urgent certainty, and people will believe (he’s done this before, as the article cited above notes, and almost always with Muslims as the villains). But the idea that American conservatives can somehow be duped into promoting Islam and Shariah law is too far fetched to even be taken seriously. I also am personally upset with Gaffney for threatening the prestige of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies where I got my MA. He has a Ph.D. from that school!
But Gaffney’s not the only one. Conservative bloggers are incensed at DC Comics for having Batman choose a French Muslim to head his Paris office. (Batman runs branch offices?) Why could he not have a “real” Frenchman? A good Catholic, or even an atheist? First, French law makes clear that French identity is related to culture, not genetics. And the French have a lot of Muslims whose families have been French for generations; they are “true” Frenchmen and women. These bloggers must be the same people who were miffed that Mecca didn’t get destroyed in the movie 2012!
What kind of bile runs through the veins of a person to make them so hateful towards Islam that they get up in arms over a comic book having a Muslim hero? Muslims fight and serve in the US armed forces, many have died to save their comrades. Are they not heroes? Of course, rationality is not a strong suit with this crowd. Recently an easily recognizable hoax led to massive effort by opponents of the New York City community center to boycott Justin Bieber. First, boycotting an artist (OK, you can quibble with that description of Bieber) over his or her political views is a bit silly — it’s a sign you’re taking this too seriously. But not to take the time to really be sure of it before launching a major boycott drive? Bizarre.
The danger, apparently, is that if we portray Muslims in a kind (I would say, in an accurate) manner, then we’re allowing others to see them as human. If Muslims are seen as human, then suddenly it’s not fair to single them out and vilify 1.5 billion people because of the acts of a few dozen. Like Gaffney, who apparently can’t stand that President Bush praised Islam as a religion of peace and had Muslim aids, Islamophobes are to the West what Bin Laden is to Islam: an irrational extreme which wants a ‘clash of civilization’ so the “evil” side can be defeated by the “good” side.
I say put the Islamic extremists and the Islamophobes in a room together and let them fight it out. The rest of us can work on things like restructuring the economy and advancing human rights.
Still, there is something both frightening and heartening in all this. It’s frightening that people can let their rationality slip away, and allow fear of the other to take over. And it is fear — hate, prejudice, bigotry and anger all have fear as their root cause. It’s heartening, however, to see that most Americans are rejecting that kind of approach, and that increasingly it’s just the over the top bizarre ones that make the news. Since the misplaced opposition to the Community Center in New York city burst forth, the media has gotten better on explaining the reality of Islam, and countering those wild claims that Muslims wanted to “kill all Christians” and things like that (sort of like how the Nazis said Jews wanted to eat Christian babies).
As it became clear that the man who wanted to build what the Islamophobes originally claimed was a “mosque on the site of Ground zero” to “honor Osama Bin Laden and claim victory” was really a moderate Sufi who has been constantly working for dialogue and cooperation between Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, people started to see the hatemongers for what they really are. There is already a mosque at the site of that community center, which is a few blocks from ground zero, not on it. The public started to shrug at that debate, and move away from a fear that somehow Muslims were a danger.
And with caricatures like Gaffney warning that Muslims are trying to take over the conservative movement, and with bloggers waxing indignant about DC Comics daring to have a French Muslim hero, it’ll continue to become obvious that only the crazies see Islam and Muslims writ large as a threat. There are dangerous extremist groups, and Islam is going through a difficult process of defining itself in the modern context thanks to globalization. There are real problems. One can also criticize the militarism and failures of American foreign policy. There is a lot to fix and deal with on all sides. But maybe the craziness is subsiding.
As the comment section in the last post demonstrates, there are people out there who think that the CIA or some group of business and government elites control the planet, and orchestrate events like 9-11 and the global economic collapse in order to promote their nefarious schemes. While it’s easy to dismiss such theories, they aren’t completely wrong.
First, people vastly under-estimate the power of big money, especially banks and large industries, in both the world economy and political realm. One of my favorite movies of all time is Syriana where Christopher Plummer plays a powerful inside the beltway lawyer who manages to manipulate Mideast politics and exercise considerable control over what goes on in the US. While he may represent a fictional ‘composite character,’ I have no doubt that such relationships exist in the inside world of friendships and business deals at the highest levels, hidden from the public eye.
Second, a lot of people are making out big with inside information and manipulation of world markets. The derivatives schemes during the bubble economy have been widely publicized, as well as the presence of such insiders as Timothy Geithner across administrations. There is a profound presence of big money and big banks putting pressure on every administration. Governments know that if they don’t dance to the tune a certain way these powerful financial institutions can do considerable damage. If the defenders of big money knew how anti-capitalist such manipulations were, they wouldn’t connect such groups with ‘the free market.’
Third, governmental leaders have considerable intelligence (of the CIA/NSA kind) at their disposal, and can use that knowledge along with propaganda to manipulate both the political system and the bureaucracy. Think of the outing of Valerie Plame or Vice President Cheney’s creation of an alternate intelligence flow to undercut information he was getting that went against the Cheney storyline of an Iraq with an active WMD program.
It’s also true that high level international actors create connections with the purpose of trying to manipulate the world economy — not necessarily with evil intent, and perhaps believing that their self-interest corresponds with the world’s interest in stability. They can influence governments and I suppose even create events and circumstances that really do reflect what conspiracy theorists believe permeates the system.
In short, the idea that we are being manipulated by a group of powerful actors who control considerable wealth, hold governmental power, and can act without transparency outside the public eye is not only plausible, but likely. Fox News and talk radio keeps the right in line by selling an anti-government propaganda pitch that blames every problem on “liberals.” Left wing activists focus on human rights and fighting against oppression, not realizing that their leaders are just as much a part of the game. It’s bread and circuses, with the elites manipulating and feeding off the masses. That’s been the way of the world for quite some time.
Yet there is a difference between that and a view that a small group of elite have the capacity to micromanage world events to an unbelievable scale, plotting economic collapse, terror attacks, and nearly every major world event or crisis for their profit. Nothing I’ve seen in history and no evidence about the present suggests any group can have that much control — reality is too complex, the actors too varied, and events too unpredictable. The idea that this would be kept secret and under wraps is also not credible. So many people would have to be in on it that someone would either slip up or have an attack of conscience.
There is also considerable evidence that Osama Bin Laden, radicalized by the fight against Communism in Afghanistan, simply could not get used to a life without a holy cause. The evidence points to him and the Taliban truly believing that the West is a godless Satan, whose people are hedonistic, soulless and immoral as they prop up corrupt Arab governments. The idea that he’s a political revolutionary driven by psychological necrophilia and religious extremism is much easier to accept and reconcile with reality than seeing him as some CIA puppet. The idea that the Cheneys and Wolfowitzes of the government, ignored for so long by the Clinton Administration and even the early Bush administration, used 9-11 as a way to get their preferences makes more sense than thinking they orchestrated it. And, of course, it’s also clear that things went south for them in Iraq after 2004 — they didn’t expect the country to implode as it did.
In short, conspiracy theorists take a grain of truth — that elite in business and government have an extraordinary amount of power and can manipulate the public — and take it to an absurd extreme. Moreover, they often have no limits – everything is part of the conspiracy. No event or crisis can take place that is not somehow planned out by some group of elite bankers.
In some ways, they remind me of the “end of the worlders.” Those are the people convinced, say, that the Mayan calendar assures the world will end on December 21, 2012, or that Jesus is about to return. I’ve read of Christians supporting tearing down the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to rebuild the Jewish Temple because they think it will start the clock to the second coming. I remember one flakey guy named Hal Lindsey predicting that the European Union was the anti-Christ, the ten headed beast in the book of revolutions. His knowledge of the EU (this was from the 70s or 80s) was completely ridiculous — he made it up, it seemed — but people bought it. People want to believe in grand schemes, conspiracies, or being part of some drama outside their control.
Y2K was a conspiracy and/or a looming disaster. People stocked up on dry food and kept cash on hand (I purposefully was down to my last $10 cash that day, as an act of rebellion against the silly panics — my ATM card worked great on 1-1-00). There is a sense of power in knowing what others don’t (that the end is coming), being prepared when others aren’t (ready for Y2K!), or having the vision and critical knowledge that the “sheeple” lack (seeing the conspiracies while the media hypnotize the masses to overlook). That gives a sense of power and purpose, one is unique, has inside information, and is a lonely fighter for truth and justice, while others just slide along oblivious to what the conspiracy theorists see as obvious. That renders a sense of superiority, and a kind of romantic self-image – the person sees the truth and is trying to open the minds of others who doggedly cling to their comfortable delusions.
Yet a realistic look at the evidence suggests there is no micromanaged world conspiracy. There are powerful actors trying to manipulate, often succeeding, sometimes failing. Often these manipulators themselves are deluded, which I think was the fate of Wall Street insiders during the bubble economy, and the neo-conservatives pushing for war in Iraq. And, of course, in the complex web of human relations, people are capable of confounding even the schemes of the most powerful, at least a little bit.
In class today we discussed terrorism. It was the usual fare — terrorism is a strategy, it can be very rational (if also unethical), effective, and even understandable. It is usually a strategy of weaker non-state actors, and can include various forms ranging from IRA attacks after phoning in the location to use of a weapon of mass destruction. We discussed Islamic terrorism, as well as libertarian extremist terrorism (Timothy McVeigh), and the potential for third world vs. first world economic terrorism. And of course we examined the root causes of terrorism, counter-terrorist methods, and all the usual stuff.
What strikes me now in 2010 is the way in which terrorism as a fear has mostly disappeared. A college freshman was only 9 years old when 9-11 took place, and even college juniors and seniors tend to emphasize how little they understood what was going on at the time. However even in the general public the constant fears and rumors of possible strikes have given way to yawns. Terrorism is no longer a top concern, and especially not an emotional topic like it once ways. 9-11 has gone from being a palpable national travesty to a day like Pearl Harbor Day — it was horrible, but it’s history.
On one level, this is good. The paranoia and panic after 9-11 were clearly misplaced, and out of fear the country made numerous mistakes — started wars which did more harm than good (and from which we still are having trouble extricating ourselves), and embraced a hyper stimulus of an economy during a boom which caused an artificial bubble and helped precipitate a major economic crisis. Looked at that way, the 9-11 terrorists succeeded in doing considerable harm — or at least in goading us to undertake actions which harmed ourselves. Putting aside fear is a good thing.
Yet fear should be replaced by reasoned and realistic consideration; instead it’s been replaced by apathy. Terrorism doesn’t matter any more because people don’t think about it. If we woke up Friday morning and found out that New York had been hit by nuclear terrorism, the fear would return, and the same kinds of mistakes and emotional turmoil would emerge. It’s not that we’ve conquered fear, only that it passed. If you’re afraid of flying and you avoid air travel, you still fear flying.
It was eight years between the first attempt to take down the World Trade Center and the 9-11 attack which succeeded. Since then nine years have passed. Al qaeda still exists, and other networks certainly span the globe, hoping to figure out a way to outdo the spectacular attacks of 9-11.
And that’s what worries me. I have no doubt that al qaeda wants to hit the US again. But Bin Laden is no dummy; something minor like bombing a shopping mall or even shooting down a plane at take off would make the news, but pale in comparison to 9-11. For al qaeda the next attack has to make 9-11 look like a warning shot. It has to be deadlier and more spectacular than the downing of the Twin Towers and attack on the Pentagon. That is how the mind of Bin Laden seems to operate.
In the news, stories abound about poor communication between government agencies and lack of preparation for the aftermath of an attack. These stories have been consistent since 2002, only then people seemed to care. Osama no longer has visible camps in Afghanistan, but in the Pashtun border lands of Pakistan the organization can still operate.
The one certain way to score a bigger hit than 9-11 would be with (a) weapon/s of mass destruction — a crude nuclear device, or some kind of chemical attack in a very public and important location (or a number of them at the same time). And, because we’ve drafted away from thinking about these issues, perhaps war weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re not psychologically prepared for another jolt. It would stymie any effort at economic recovery and lead to calls for everything from another war (Tom Tancredo: “Nuke Mecca!”) to extreme isolationism. I have no idea what would happen, but it could be a devastating blow for a country already weakened by economic crisis and prolonged wars.
The President needs to address the nation and speak out forcefully about the building of an Islamic community center a few blocks from ground zero (not a “Mosque at ground zero,” as some claim).
The fact of the matter is that there is no war between Islam and the West. Most Muslims have absolutely no sympathy for the extremist 9-11 perpetrators. Remember Timothy McVeigh, the patriot who bombed the Oklahoma Federal building, causing over a hundred deaths, including those of children in a day care located there? He was striking out to defend the Constitution and American liberties from what he saw as an increasingly tyrannical government.
We all agree with McVeigh’s view that the Constitution is important and should be defended, and many would agree that government is getting too powerful. Does that mean, though, we lump all who support the constitution and love freedom together as potential terrorists? Would a monument to the Constitution be inappropriate a few blocks from the Oklahoma Federal Building? Is anyone who says “the government is getting too intrusive and going against the Constitution” a potential terrorist? To tie Islam to 9-11 is akin to all that.
The message that we have to make — and Obama should be loud and clear — is that there is no war against Islam. We do not see Islam as the enemy, and we do not think Muslims should have any lower status or respect because of the acts undertaken by terrorists on 9-11. They were subverting Islam and abusing it to pursue their political agenda. We need to completely divorce religion from the fight against terrorism, it’s not about Islam.
President Bush made those points after 9-11. We are not the kind of country that lumps people together and demonizes a whole faith because of the acts of a few. That would be contrary to American principles. One woman was shown with a sign that read “we’ll let you build a mosque at ground zero when you let us build a synagogue in Mecca.” Wow. First, that’s directly seeing it as a conflict of religions. Moreover, it’s implying that another country’s dictatorship should be rationale for our denying rights to Americans. All of this only serves the extremists on all sides. The anti-Muslim fanatics in the US who want to belittle Muhammad, demonize Islam and claim that the goal of Islam is to kill all non-Muslims and create a world empire love this sort of thing. They want a “clash of civilizations.” Hamas, al qaeda and other extremists love it too — they aren’t winning over the hearts and minds of their fellow Muslims. Only if they can make America seem to be at war with their entire religion can they hope to inspire some kind of broad support.
Politically this has the potential to actually be a windfall for Obama. This could be the point where the tea party and the far right wing go too far, making themselves look too xenophobic and bigoted to be taken seriously. People can say, “wait a minute, just look at this rhetoric, this isn’t what we want for the country.” The Democrats have the potential to turn 2010 into a much better year than it seems like it will be, thanks to the Republicans.
Much to the distress of most mainstream Republicans, the tea party and right wing punditry’s emphasis on issues like this distract from the economic distress which can not help but severely hurt the party in power. The wild rhetoric and the choice of extreme candidates like Sharon Angle in Nevada are gifts to the Democrats. The Republicans can potentially be defined as a bit over the top, extreme, erratic, and too focused on political jihad when most of the public want the two parties to compromise and cooperate to solve problems. Instead of losing 40 House seats and 7 Senate seats, the Democrats could cut their loses to 20 or so in the House and 4 in the Senate — or perhaps do better.
The key is for Obama to now grab the high ground, show leadership, and boldly take what appears to be an unpopular stance. He should embrace the Islamic center, describing it accurately, educating people on both it and Islamic teachings. He must make a persuasive case that welcoming such a center is precisely what we need to do in order to undercut those who aspire to launch new terror attacks. This is the path to peaceful cooperation. He should recall the fear after 9-11, and the dangers inherent if there is a “clash of civilizations.” He should quote President Bush and note that until recently it had been a common theme of both parties that this isn’t about religion. The only way to oppose the community center is to think 9-11 wasn’t about extremists but was actually about the whole of Islam.
Obama should have families of 9-11 victims there who support the community center. He should talk clearly about American principles, and frame it so opposition seems petty and misguided. It should be a masterpiece speech, one crafted well — like his race speech in 2008. If he pulls this off, suddenly Americans will start to question the rhetoric coming from the far right. Moreover, Obama’s supporters and Democrats will be more energized — nothing energies more than fear and anger at the “other side.”
This could be a major tipping point for the Democrats, the country, and the Republicans. For the Democrats, this issue could turn around their fortunes and allow them to regain footing. They just have to define the issue and not mince words. Obama has to stand on principle, and not try to have it both ways. For the country this could be the time where we stared into the abyss — a country going against its very principles, willing to demean a whole other faith, all because of what 19 people did on 9-11 — and said, “no, we’re better than this.” This could be when we show the world that we truly believe in our principles, we are not at war with Islam, and our goal is to work with Muslims in a spirit of mutual respect.
For Republicans, most of whom would prefer to talk about the economy and who find the tea party and the wild rhetoric out there a bit over the top and distracting, it may be a chance for the moderate conservatives to start to shape the conversation. Remember President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and “ownership society?” That kind of talk draws people to the Republicans, not demonizing “liberals” or launching a crusade against an Islamic center in Manhattan.
Mr. President, I know it’s a local issue, and you may think that given the economy, it’s really beneath you to elevate it further. But this is the kind of symbolic issue which needs Presidential voice. Please, show leadership beyond governance and getting legislation passed, show the symbolic leadership this country needs right now. It’ll be good for you and your party, it will be good for the country, and ultimately it will even be good for the Republicans.
Century 1: 1815 – 1914 was the golden age of Europe. France acquired Algeria in 1830, beginning its colonial expansion into Africa. The British also undertook a new wave of colonization, putting together a navy second to none. After Napoleon’s defeat, Austria emerged as the dominant continental power, focused on one thing — keeping the dangerous forces of liberalism and nationalism at bay. Tradition, monarchism, and stability required an embrace of the status quo. Austria felt this most acutely; being a multi-ethnic empire of medieval origins, nationalism and liberalism (democracy and individual rights) represented an existential threat to the Austrian empire.
Italy and Germany unified between 1860 and 1871, eliminating the last vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire. As capitalism spread and Europe industrialized, a new prosperity took root, making cities like London, Paris, Vienna and even latecomer Berlin splendid and wealthy. The working class, horribly exploited early on, slowly improved their lot, in part by threatening revolution should the state not step in and limit the power of industrialists.
The century was built on contradictions. Liberalism was spreading. Capitalism overtook traditional forms of economic relations, and was the basis for the new prosperity. Democracy spread to France by the middle of this era, though Germany and Italy resisted. Nationalism was a powerful force. Germany and Italy were fictions without it. Italians south of Naples could not understand the language and customs of Italians from the North. Bavarians in Munich had nothing in common with Prussians in Berlin. Yet despite this dynamism as long as stability could be maintained the system survived. Energy was spent on colonialism, prosperity grew and the contradictions were hidden in plain sight. Only when the collapse of the Ottoman Empire created a power vacuum did the whole edifice collapse into World War I. Europe would never be the same again.
The collapse was multi-dimensional. Einstein’s theory of relativity (1905 and 1916) destroyed the ordered world of Newtonian physics. Freud’s (1890) notion of the subconscious decimated the enlightenment dream of human reason and rational thought as the path to the future. We are not driven by reason, but by passion and forces we often don’t even recognize as being there. Freud, however, was not the only one recognizing the unconscious nature of human thought, he simply took it to a new level with psychoanalysis. In Music Diaghilev and Stravinsky turned the ballet world upside down with Rite of Spring (1913), and Schoenberg’s atonality rejected the musical traditions of the past. Klimt pushed forth new areas in painting as in both art and music the romantic era had already given way to one more chaotic and anti-traditional. Science, philosophy, our understanding of the human mind, tradition, religion, and the arts were being transformed just as the economic and political realms were.
Century 2: After WWI, we entered a new century, a different time. It would be the age of ideologies, with fascism, communism, socialism, liberalism, and other human ideational constructs defining the social and political realms. The State grew in power, and capitalism became dynamic and global. To be sure, it took thirty years of economic and political instability before this new era achieved stability. Once it did, the ideological battle reflected in the Cold War and the increasing complexity and expansion of global capitalism defined the new era. This led to a bifurcated world, split between a small group of wealthy prosperous countries alongside poor and sometimes destitute countries.
The golden age of this era, still limited to Europe and a handful of other industrialized states, was from 1950 to 2001. For a half century, prosperity spread, as did security. People in the industrialized world had levels of material prosperity that went beyond even what the 19th century wealthy could enjoy. As the state grew, so did bureaucracies. This led to the collapse of communism, which couldn’t compete with the dynamism of capitalism. Yet in the wealthy a dangerous cycle of debt and consumption developed. By the 1980s the industrialized world started to rely on the “have nots,” particularly China, for their prosperity.
Most importantly, the prosperous relied on oil. While they credited capitalism and democracy, the cheap energy provided by oil — discovered in mass quantities in Texas back in 1901 — created the capacity for mass consumption and continuous growth. The expansion of debt and credit by the latter part of that era was fueled by a belief that growth would not slow. Art and music changed as well, as the “culture industry” shifted from seeing art and music as forms in their own right to marketable products. If it didn’t sell, art was worthless in the eyes of most people.
Yet there were contradictions here too. Democracy had become less a way for people to use reason to try to solve societal problems and more a media contest for power. Voters were increasingly uninformed and reactive to events and propaganda. Freedom was eroded by growing bureaucracies, and capitalism grew to be less about competition and risk than corporate dominance. The choice by the wealthy to rely on cheap labor and resources from those outside the West to provide their material toys also meant an expanded demand for oil, hastening the point when oil production would start to fall, and be unable to keep up with demands. Moreover, the massive use of oil and consumption of material goods started to pollute the planet, bringing the climate and ecosystems out of balance. This was noticed in the 1960s, but by the end of this era scientists were worried that the impact of these imbalances could lead to catastrophes.
Even as the population in the wealthy core became overweight, unhealthy, and focused more on making quick money with little effort, often caught up in superficial dramas and life-conditions, those in the poorer states grew angry. This was expressed through religious extremism first, and it was an act of these extremists which ended this golden age on September 11, 2001. That attack, alongside a real estate bubble, an foolish war by US, and dramatically rising oil prices brought the contradictions in the open. By 2009 it was clear that this era was ending.
Century 3? Most questions remain unanswered. Will there be something as dramatic and unambiguous to end this era as there was in 1914? Or is a “great war” an anachronism, with terror threats and economic decline replacing it. More important, what will the new era be like? Will the information revolution and new technologies lead to a renewal of artistic and musical diversity, overcoming the old “culture industry?” As horrific as the transition from “Century 1” to “Century 2” was, with the holocaust, two world wars and the Great Depression, the second era was arguably superior to the first, at least in the industrialized West. Will that be the case again? How chaotic will the transition be? What is the impact of globalization — the new era will reach far beyond Europe and the West, and may even see a transfer of power and wealth from the West to a new core.
So we live in interesting times, moving from one era to another. In two weeks I’ll be in Vienna, part of a travel course to Vienna, Munich and Berlin. Perhaps strolling through time in that jewel of the 19th century will give me some insight at where our civilization is heading.
The President goes into a war, expecting a quick victory, telling the American people that we are fighting a tyrant and dictator who could disrupt the region and sow instability. Moreover, the war is to spread democracy and enhance human rights.
Not long after the war began, it started to become clear that real victory in terms of setting up a stable regional order or stopping the slaughter of innocents would be far more difficult than planned. While the President urged the country to “stay the course,” the White House was condemned for poor planning and having no exit strategy. One pundit wrote “the road to hell was paved with good intentions, but muddled planning.” Ethnic violence seemed immune to the super power technology being used to try to bring stability.
Moreover, the Powell doctrine, which required massive power and complete public support, was being ignored. The President did not have the opposition party behind him, and soon was getting tremendous criticism for waging an unnecessary ‘war of choice.’ A long time government foreign policy elite who rose to become Vice President dismissed the Powell doctrine as a “paralysis doctrine.” Senator John McCain criticized those who didn’t want to go all in, saying that “the costs of failure are infinitely greater than the price of victory.” McCain believed that more troops should be sent, surging existing efforts in order to create the prospect of a real victory. Nonetheless, as the White House and its allies strove to find an exit strategy, the human cost of the war rose, with most of the deaths being civilian, caused by ethnic conflict rather than American bombs.
A hawk in the Administration pushed for the use of US power. In one conversation this hawk admonished Colin Powell about being afraid to use power: “what’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it.” After leaving the administration Powell would later admit that upon hearing those words “I thought I would have an aneurysm.” But the Administration clearly believed it was important to show that the US not only had power, but would be bold in using it in order to shape the 21st century into being one in accord with US values. The war caused dissent within NATO, and severely harmed relations with Russia and China. The low point came when the US, apparently through error, bombed the Chinese embassy.
Yes, I’m describing the 1999 Kosovo war. The quote about the Powell doctrine being a paralysis doctrine came from Joe Biden, then speaking in his role on the Senate foreign relations committee. President Clinton was quoted in Time magazine as urging Americans “to stay the course.” And the hawkish administration official who almost gave Powell an aneurysm was Secretary of State Madeline Albright (though the conversation quoted took place in 1993, long before Kosovo, when Albright was still US Ambassador to the UN).
The differences between the wars are also significant. The Kosovo war dragged out 80 days, not over seven years, and not one American or NATO soldier was killed. It was purely an air war, as NATO politics prevented a ground invasion. And though the conflict created divisions within NATO, it was a NATO effort, led by the US. After the war the government admitted that it had overestimated the power of technology and the ability of to stop ethnic violence. In Time magazine on June 14, 1999 reporting on what top Pentagon brass took from the war, reported “in the next conflict, they fret, a really smart foe won’t fight the US int he skies or on the ground — places where victory is very unlikely. Instead it will be smart and strike far away from the war zone — in the heart of a US city, perhaps — with biological or chemical weapons.” Just over two years later that prediction proved accurate, though hijacked airlines were the weapon the ‘smart foe’ chose to use.
Still, despite the very different natures of the two wars, the similarities are striking. The Clinton Administration had a lot in common with the Bush Administration of a few years later. They believed the war would be much easier than it was, they under estimated the situation on the ground in terms of the power of ethnic tension, they had no exit plan, didn’t really consider what to do if the air strikes didn’t work as anticipated, and going to war created domestic divisions. They also believed that it was important that the US use its military power to spread democracy and human rights, and did not doubt that it was legitimate. The US wanted to force a deal between the KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army, which not much earlier had been deemed a terrorist organization by the State Department) and Serbia over the fate of the province of Kosovo in southwest Serbia.
The impetus had been a massacre of 44 people in Recak, Kosovo, in January. When Serbia wouldn’t go along with a deal they felt was a breach of sovereignty in their struggle against terrorism, the US bombed. After the bombing started massive human rights violations against the Kosovar Albanians began, including a mass exodus, rape, and mass murder. The same question haunts the Clinton Administration in Kosovo as does the Bush Administration in Iraq: would the human cost been less if war had not been chosen? In each case they point to Milosevic or Hussein, and note that the dictators had been brutal. But would such atrocities as were later seen have happened without war? Would a different path of pressure been better and more effective in human terms?
Kosovo’s lessons were not learned by the Bush Administration as it planned to invade Iraq. Kosovo was, thankfully, over relatively quickly. The White House and NATO declared it a success, forgot those agonizing months where things were going wrong, and in the public mind the war had been about all those refugees fleeing Kosovo, forgetting that that was a consequence of the decision to bomb. Charles Krauthammer, the neo-conservative who would be important in arguing publicly for war in Iraq dismissed Kosovo’s woes as due to a “reluctant, uncertain” President. A serious President would have gone all in to win decisively, Krauthammer insisted.
Still, the similarities are enough to lead me to three propositions: 1) the Democrats and Republicans were not as different at least within elite circles as it appears to the public. Albright’s rhetoric sounds almost neo-conservative, the belief that power should be used and assumption of success dogged both Clinton and Bush; 2) just as the lessons weren’t learned after Kosovo, it’s very likely that despite the trauma caused by Iraq, many lessons here will be ignored too. Perhaps most likely is that people will again make tactical criticisms, without addressing the real question of what the US role should really be in this post-Cold War and post-9-11 world, and how effective military operations are; and 3) politicians these days seem much more hawkish than the military leaders. Powell reflected general Pentagon opinions for both Kosovo and Iraq; the military was far less keen on these wars than those in the White House. The drumbeat of war was pushed in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations by people with no or very limited military experience.
Moreover, the Pentagon “warning” in the June 14, 1999 issue of Time is still valid — if we take the fight elsewhere, it very likely will be brought back to us here. That’s a lesson the Russians learned today. We now understand the dangers, but are we really ready? Have we learned the lessons of Kosovo and Iraq? And what about Afghanistan and al qaeda? No time today to reflect further, but the similarities between Kosovo and Iraq suggest that our problem is not just that President Bush made some ‘bad choices,’ but is deeper within the US foreign policy/military policy mindset.
I am not afraid of terrorism. The fact that one Nigerian student almost blew up a plane but failed illustrates how rare it is for a terror attempt to get that close to success. To be sure, it’s good that this is a lesson to make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated, but it’s clear that despite many holes in the system, not too many terrorists are willing and able to even make such an attempt. The threats facing Americans are far less than those facing Italians in the 80s from the red brigades, the British in the heyday of the IRA, or the Spanish back when ETA was a real Basque movement rather than an organized crime syndicate.
Let’s take some other statistics. Traffic deaths have reached record lows. In 2008 they were less than 40,000 for the entire country. That’s a steady decline form the 50,000 range between the late sixties and 1980. That is the equivalent of blowing up well over 100 airplanes, or repeating 9-11 about 13 times. Tobacco causes 435,000 annual deaths, alcohol over 80,000, there are 30,000 or so suicides, and if we had even slightly healthier diets and exercise habits the lives saved would be in the hundreds of thousands per year.
How many terrorist deaths on American soil in 2009? One deranged sniper at Ft. Hood killed a handful of people. Perhaps there was a radical anti-abortion bombing or two. But otherwise, terrorism is so far down the list that it is irrational to be afraid of terrorism, at least from a statistical level.
Yet to judge from the hyperbolic language coming from much of the right and many on the left, Barack Obama “isn’t keeping Americans safe” and that we need to fight a true war on terror. Despite the tiny rate of terror attacks, the fact that Islamic extremism is the primary motivation for terror attempts against the US, some think we should profile all Muslims, and there is no shortage of pundits denigrating Islam. Fear is a powerful emotion, if you can use it to your political advantage, it will take you far — and will dampen the rational reflection of those in the grip of fear.
However, before completely dismissing the fear mongering, there are a couple of points that need to be addressed. First, statistics about the past say little about the future, though year after year terror deaths in the US remain very low. One can imagine fantasies of major loss of life — nuclear terrorism, bioterrorism, etc. — but so far there is little evidence that any of this is likely. The potential that terrorists could use such weapons is cause for concern; efforts to reduce that potential are rational. Having real fear that this is going to happen — an emotional state of fear — is not rational.
Second, many of the causes of death above are due to choices made. We choose to drive, knowing the risks. People choose to smoke, drink, kill themselves, or take drugs. Terrorists actively choose to kill; the innocent victims have no choice in the matter. Yet these situations aren’t as different as it seems. A good driver following the rules who is hit by a drunk out of control is just as much an innocent victim of someone else’s choice. A lot of traffic fatalities happen for that reason. Cigarette companies use large budgets to manipulate people to smoke, and suicide is often caused by depression or other mental disorders one does not control. It’s really the illusion of control.
Psychologically, fear of terrorism is much like fear of flying — not statistically rational, but due to the loss of a sense of control over the situation, plus the drama of the plane crashes which do occur, very common. That, I think explains why people fear terrorism so vividly, while ignoring the threat faced when they pull out onto the highway with their Ford. The government should be assuring people that we are a very safe from terror attacks. True, pure security is impossible, and we’re trying our best, but in all people need not fear. Instead too many political opportunists use any error as a way to say that we are all being endangered by incompetent leadership, or a President who really thinks we are to blame for terrorism and thus doesn’t fight it hard (Glenn Beck said that).
The opportunism is crassly hypocritical. The far right, who thinks Americans should not expect the government to solve problems by regulating big money (individual responsibility, you know) does expect the state to perfectly protect us from a statistically insignificant chance of being the unlikely victim of a terrorist who managed to slip through the cracks. Cheney can say Obama “isn’t keeping us safe,” effectively stating that we should expect our government to be akin to our parents. Others say we have to really make this a “war” on terror…because after a number of years of thwarted attempts, one would be terrorist almost succeeded. Cede power to the state to keep you safe and secure, just don’t allow it to limit the pay of financial executives whose stupidity and short sightedness helped bring down the US economy!
Is terrorism a threat for the future which we should take seriously? Absolutely. 9-11 showed that in an era of globalization, even the dominant world power can be hit by a small number of people in a way that does real damage. And as technology grows, the danger of cyberterrorism and other forms of potentially more serious attacks grow as well. We should be working to put in safeguards, gain intelligence, and try to minimize the risk.
But to engage in a level of fear which we see being stoked from a few pundits and politicians, to use it to discriminate against millions because of their faith, or rationalize torture and other un-American activities, that’s going too far. Fear is a horrible advisor. Fear destroys rational thought, and often ends up leading to behaviors which draw the thing one wants to avoid. So yes, embrace a solid counter-terrorism policy in cooperation with other states, as both Presidents Bush and Obama have done. But don’t expect perfection, and remember: as of this point, even with 9-11 included, terrorism is not something Americans need fear. Terrorism remains extremely rare. There is no need to base a policy, or our emotional states, on such fear.