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Illusions on the Right
What Conservatives “Know” About 9/11, and Why It’s Wrong
THE REASON AMERICA’S “war on terrorism” is imperiled is that there is no clear sense of who the enemy is. Is Al Qaeda the problem? A network of terrorist groups operating through the Al Qaeda “franchise”? State–sponsored terrorism? Weapons of mass destruction in the hands of hostile states? Or is Islamic fundamentalism to blame, since it appears to be the incubator of terrorism? Or is the West facing a very old enemy, Islam itself?
Not only is the identity of the enemy obscure; many Americans also have no idea why these people are so murderously hostile to the United States. Five years after 9/11, most people still have little sense of what would cause a bunch of men to want to blow themselves up in order to smash the Pentagon and topple the World Trade Center. The 9/11 Commission Report, for all its length and lucidity, only describes how the grisly event occurred but gives no coherent explanation for why it occurred.
Americans—including the U.S. government—also seem confused about what is the overall objective of the enemy. Terror for its own sake? U.S. troops out of Mecca? The destruction of the state of Israel? Islamic control of the Middle East? World domination? Moreover, since the enemy’s goals are unknown, it is virtually impossible to figure out its strategy; about all that seems known is that terrorism is one of its components. Without reliable knowledge of what the enemy wants and how it intends to achieve its goal, it seems virtuallyimpossible to have an effective counterstrategy, either at home or abroad. In addition, America’s people and leaders are deeply divided about whether this is a war with an end point, over what would constitute “success,” and over whether success is even possible in this new kind of war.
No nation ever won a war under these conditions. Therefore, the crisis of the war against terrorism is primarily an intellectual crisis, a crisis of understanding. To fight this war better it is necessary to understand it better. Therefore let us return to the beginning, to the cataclysmic attack that launched this new war for a new century.
Approximately five years after 9/11, we know a great deal about that nightmarish event. Many Americans actually saw it happen. If you were watching television the morning of September 11, 2001, you would have had your programming interrupted shortly before 9 a.m. That’s when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Word spread rapidly, and millions of Americans were riveted to their TV sets when, a few minutes later, a second plane flew directly into the South Tower. The sight of the slow–motion collapse of these two landmarks of the New York skyline, with chaos everywhere and people running for their lives, will long remain etched on the national psyche. One of the most gruesome symbols of 9/11 was the sight of people jumping out of windows, preferring to fall to their deaths rather than be roasted alive in the fiery inferno. Soon Americans discovered that a third plane had slammed into the northwest side of the Pentagon, and a fourth, headed for an unknown destination, had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. As the magnitude of the disaster slowly registered, Americans saw heroic scenes of firefighters trying to rescue survivors, and poignant portraits of desperate New Yorkers trying to locate family members, hanging on to the slender hope that they had made it out of the burning buildings alive. Here is a typical plea, taken from a collection of recordings from the 9/11 archive: “If anyone has any idea, or if they’ve seen him or know where he is, call us. He’s got two little babies. Two little babies.”
It was the worst day in American history, worse than Pearl Harbor, worse even than Gettysburg. Those were military catastrophes, one of them off American shores, in which soldiers killed soldiers. By contrast, 9/11 was an attack on the American mainland; it was an attack on the core institutions of America, and it took nearly three thousand lives, the vast majority of them civilians. The Cold War lasted for decades, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and confronted Americans with the prospect of nuclear annihilation, but fewer Americans were killed over the entire duration of the Cold War than perished on a single day in September 2001. What made 9/11 even more sobering was the recognition that its perpetrators intended to blow up the White House or the Capitol—the apparent destination of the fourth plane—and they meant to kill a lot more people. Nearly fifty thousand people worked in the World Trade Center, and the death toll from 9/11 could have been much higher.
Today, with the perspective of hindsight, and thanks to the detailed government investigation that culminated in The 9/11 Commission Report, we have a lot of information about 9/11. We know a great deal about what happened and how it happened. We know that the original plan, proposed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, called for the hijacking of ten planes to be crashed into targets on both coasts. (1) (Bin Laden settled for the final plan that was executed on September 11.) We can follow the movements of the terrorists in the period leading up to 9/11. We have a detailed account of what they did that day: where and when they boarded the planes, when they spoke to one another, what they carried with them, and what they left behind in their rooms. The report has a moment–by–moment description of the climactic denouement. We can read heartbreaking transcripts of passengers calling family members to say “I love you,” and, “Good–bye.” We can hear what flight attendant Madeline Sweeney said as she saw American Airlines flight 11 zoom over the Hudson River toward the World Trade Center. “I see water and buildings,” Sweeney told her ground supervisor. “Oh my God, oh my God!”
What The 9/11 Commission Report does not tell us, however, is why it happened. (2) On the subject of why the terrorists and their sponsors did what they did, the report is largely silent. This failure to comprehend the motives and goals of the enemy greatly limits the value of the report. Moreover, the report’s discussion of the vital question of whether 9/11 could have been prevented suffers from an air of unreality. The report concludes that 9/11 could have been averted had America done this and that and the other—if only America had better control of its borders, if only the agencies of government were restructured to permit better sharing of intelligence, if only there were more systematic checks on airlines and other modes of transportation, and if only America had eliminated the Al Qaeda training camps and their support structures.
This conclusion is a fallacy. Call it the fallacy of retroactive insight. The characteristic feature of 9/11 was that it was a surprise attack designed to take advantage of an existing vulnerability in America's defenses. After the attack, it is easy to say that we should have taken the measures that would have prevented the attack. But imagine the uproar if a newly elected President Bush had ordered massive air strikes on Afghanistan prior to September 11. Imagine if someone, prior to 9/11, proposed restructuring the government at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, restricting the freedom and convenience of Americans through extensive security checks and measures like the Patriot Act, and ousting the Taliban through military force. Such a person would have been dismissed as a paranoid and a crackpot, akin to someone today who called for America to take drastic measures to stop the Chinese from invading Florida.
In this sense, I do not believe 9/11 could have been prevented.
BUT WHY DID they do it? The terrorists didn’t leave an explanatory note, and the question of their motives has haunted America ever since the fateful attacks. At first 9/11 generated a spectacular moment of national unity, in which Americans came together to grieve over the terrible loss of life, acknowledge a new sense of shared vulnerability, and cherish the heroism of the police officers and firefighters. From the far ends of the world came words of sympathy and solidarity. Even the French commiserated, and Le Monde ran a banner headline proclaiming, “We are all Americans.”
At the same time, however, Americans were startled by the reaction to 9/11 from certain quarters of the Muslim world. “Allah has answered our prayers” declared the Palestinian weekly Al–Risala in its September 13, 2001, issue. The Egyptian newspaper Al–Maydan noted that when the news broke that the towers were hit, “Millions of us shouted in joy.” There were celebrations in Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, and Jordan. Even in London, some Muslims rejoiced and Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed preached a sermon in his mosque calling September 11 “a towering day in history” and hailing the “magnificent 19” for what they did. (3) In many parts of the Muslim world, Osama bin Laden became an instant sensation for having hit America where it hurt. Americans who hoped that these reactions were grotesquely aberrant, and expected them to be strongly repudiated by the rest of the Muslim world, found these hopes disappointed.
Wracked with grief over 9/11, and furious at this bloody assault on civilian life, American leaders and opinion makers responded with instinctive and sputtering contempt toward their attackers. Several TV commentators and talk radio hosts proclaimed the 9/11 attackers “insane.” Columnist Thomas Friedman declared that Osama bin Laden was simply “a psychopath.” Another theory was that 9/11 was pointless, what scholar–activist Edward Said termed “a terror mission without message, senseless destruction.” Historian Stanley Hoffman, not previously known for his expertise in Koranic interpretation, noted that the bin Laden crew were acting “on so peculiar an interpretation of the Koran that there is very little one can do to rebut it.” President Bush took up this theme on September 20, 2001, charging that the 9/11 attackers “blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself.” Columnist Barbara Ehrenreich suggested that 9/11 was an uprising on the part of the wretched of the earth, seeking to remedy “the vast global inequalities in which terrorism is ultimately rooted.” Writing in The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg and David Remnick announced, “This is a conflict that pits all of civilized society against a comparatively small, essentially stateless band of murderous outlaws.” (4)
It is easy to sneer, with the benefit of hindsight, at these outlandish theories. But there was a good deal of evidence even at the time they were uttered that they were wrong. Clearly the terrorists were not insane, or they could never have pulled off the most successful terrorist attack in history. By all accounts 9/11 required a degree of imagination, precision, and coordination of which insane people simply are not capable. At the meager cost of $500,000, and armed only with box cutters, the 9/11 hijackers managed to inflict heavy casualties, cause hundreds of billions of dollars of damage, and transform the way of life of the world’s most powerful nation. (5) Since bin Laden was one of the richest men in the world, his deputy Ayman al–Zawahiri a physician from one of the most prominent families in Egypt, and most of the 9/11 hijackers from educated middle–class backgrounds, 9/11 was hardly a poor man's uprising; one might almost call it “terrorism of the rich.” By all accounts bin Laden and Zawahiri are deeply pious Muslims, and the diaries left behind by the 9/11 hijackers show them to be equally sincere and devout. (6) There are many people in the Muslim world who disagree with bin Laden and the perpetrators of 9/11, but few Muslim clergy consider them to be apostates or betrayers of Islam. Moreover, it was clear from the beginning that lots of Muslims supported and rejoiced in 9/11, and that far from being stateless outlaws, bin Laden and his men enjoyed the sponsorship and support of at least one Islamic regime, the Taliban government of Afghanistan.
These errors are not surprising. The mood in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was disturbed and intemperate. Many Americans expressed the view that they didn’t care why America was hated; they just wanted to find the people who planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, and to obliterate them. No wonder that many senseless things were said in this truculent frame of mind. What is surprising is that for a time there was moral and ideological unity in America of a kind not seen since World War II. Suddenly the old divisions in America—over race, over taxes, over the Clinton legacy, over the 2000 election and the Supreme Court decision that put Bush in office—evaporated. The whole nation felt itself under attack by a common enemy. One powerful symbol of this unity was the sight of the entire U.S. Congress, conservative Republicans joined by liberal Democrats, singing “God Bless America” in front of the nation’s Capitol. Despite their previous disagreements, the Democrats in Congress pledged to support President Bush in a unified national response to 9/11.
Even old ideological adversaries began to speak the same political language. A few days after the attacks, the New York Times declared that bin Laden and the hijackers “acted out of hatred for the values cherished in the West such as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism, and universal suffrage.” (7) I am not concerned at this point with the veracity of the Times’s statement. I am struck, however, that a major newspaper that can be relied on to condemn President Bush here sounded exactly like him. Thus 9/11 produced something that Americans once took for granted but now experienced as a novelty. One America. One America united against its enemies.
But this moment of national unity was brief. It lasted as long as the impact of 9/11 was fresh. But as soon as that emotional wound began to heal, the moral and ideological unity disappeared and a furious debate broke out over the meaning of 9/11. This debate has only intensified the division in the country, revealing the division to be bigger than 9/11, bigger even than foreign policy. Ultimately 9/11 has exposed a deep chasm in the American soul over the meaning of America itself.
I WANT TO begin by discussing the mainstream conservative view of 9/11 that formed the basis for the Bush administration’s war against terrorism. This view is sometimes called the “neoconservative” approach, although I believe it is wrongly labeled as such. Some neoconservative strategists may have helped to devise it, but ultimately it is President Bush who adopted it and it is the Bush position that enjoys general support on the right and in the Republican Party. I recognize of course that there are dissident factions on the right, primarily the Buchanan wing of the “old right” and the libertarian critics. I will address their views later. Here I outline the central principles of Bush’s conservative understanding of 9/11.