9/11: Bin Laden’s Victory
Column by W.R. Marshall
Gen. David Patraeus is leaving Iraq.
Osama Bin Laden has won.
A simple declarative statement — and an unfortunately true one. The victory was handed to him by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al; the Neocon architects of the now ironically entitled “War against Terror.” A war that was lost before it began because it could never be fought. Terror is one tactic used by an ideological group to fight an opposing ideological group — terror itself is not an ideology. Wars are won by defeating ideologies, not tactics, because tactics change. Our leaders have surrendered to this tactic even as the war rages on.
It’s particularly important to remember this, on this day.
To understand why the terrorists have won (this is not algebraic, we have not, by necessity, lost) it is incumbent upon us to accept some fundamental truths about terrorism. The first is that terrorism is a means to an end other than itself. It is not causa prima when going to war, nor is it the act of a psychotic sniper or truly disturbed high-school students. Terror has political rationale behind it. Whether it is the Committee of Public Safety’s Reign of Terror in France in 1793 or the Palestinian intifada in Israel some 200 years later, each had a specific purpose beyond its practice of terrorization. In the former, the operational French government repressed its own citizens to hold the reins of power. In the latter, the oppositional Palestinians want their own state. In each instance the terrorist act is not the ideal. It is the result of that act upon a given population that eventually brings about the desired effect. Usually it is cumulative, an aggregate death toll informing the other side that it will continue to mount until changes are made.
George W. Bush raised the white flag after a single incident, and his administration, through either its lack of understanding of terrorism, or — and we hope this is not the case — its callous disregard of it, has, in many ways, transformed America into the frightened nation Bin Laden wants it to be.
If Bin Laden is still alive and spending his days in a cave making tapes, telling the world America is not what it says it is, it is not the home of the brave and the land of the free, and the world has evidence of America’s secret prisons, violations of rights, and torture, how has he not won?
He is a terrorist to us, but our leaders have charged that word with only one meaning. More than one scholar has said we reserve the word “terrorist” for political violence of which we do not approve. But one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. In the 1980s the United States fully supported and supplied the Taliban in their fight for freedom against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Bin Laden himself fought in that war. At this very moment we are fighting the very same people in the very same place. The “Forgotten War” which should have been the front from the beginning, where the terrorists are again the Taliban. In other words we actively backed “terrorists” when it was politically expedient. One might even argue The Boston Tea Party was a terrorist act; it was committed against a civilian target with no military value. But the President and Vice President see no such subtlety in language, or frankly in the actions of those who oppose us, and their failure to do so has cost us this war.
What is unique about terrorism is the way it democratizes violence. It takes carnage from the battlefield and extends it well beyond those who are trained and willing to engage in it, and carries it to those who are not trained and either cannot or will not engage. It involves civilians, it targets children. These are the morally reprehensible acts we encounter on CNN, this is the horror of 9/11.
Yet, in another irony in a war filled with irony, 9/11 is where we lost the war on terror. It wasn’t on that day; we still had a chance to win. Then, our leaders, unaccustomed to political acts of violence within our borders, and unable to comprehend the long-term effect of their kneejerk reaction played right into Bin Laden’s hands. While the dead were still being counted at the Twin Towers the rest of us became victims. We became victims of terror not because we were injured in the attack, but precisely because we were not, because we still walk around thinking about it, because we might be next, and, here is the imperative — because we were constantly reminded we might be next.
That’s what terror does — it makes you believe, it works on the psyche. It can fade away, it can become background noise, which is what terrorism is to most Americans, but it’s still present, part of a new American collective subconscious. But it’s brought to the surface when Bush and Cheney constantly beat the drum of “terrorism alerts,” constantly changed the color on their terror rainbow from ‘mildly worried’ to ‘paranoid and fearful’. All they did is tell those who would do us harm to keep at it. It seemed to be working because our leaders seemed to be afraid.
It’s possible this administration was genuinely frightened for the nation, and they were trying to keep us safe by informing us of the danger. It’s also possible they are venal and corrupt and used these threats to promote their own agenda. Either way, the nation loses, the terrorists win, because it isn’t only the Bush people who decry detail. Show a cell of young jihadists footage of the President of the United States saying “the terrorists are coming,” and it’s fairly certain all subtext will be lost.
The biggest mistake our leaders have made is giving into Neoconservative paranoia and granting this baggy collection of fanatics called Al Qaeda nation-state status, then exacerbating the problem by anointing them “Islamo-fascists.” They’ve been given borders of a sort. What is truly appalling is the display of historical amnesia in the face of real fascism. The President’s father fought the Nazis, yet the son had the temerity to compare his war to that one. This points to the glaring failure of Bush in prosecuting his war.
Bush likes to think himself Churchillian, a wartime commander, facing imminent invasion. But, again, he either ignores or is ignorant of history. In 1940, when Churchill said, “We shall fight them on the beaches, landing ground, in fields, in streets, and on the hills,” London had been under steady bombardment for months — a terrorist act of one nation state against another — and there was a genuine fear of Hitler invading the British Isles with what was, in the early years of the war, a technologically superior military. Even in the face of that, Churchill rallied the Britons, asked them to go about their quotidian business as the bombs fell around them. Churchill refused to accept defeat. Bush embraced it without a second thought.
The “Islamo-fascists” do not have an Air Force, do not have a Navy, have no centralized Army. They are not anytime soon — if anytime at all — going to be crawling all over our beaches, landing ground, fields, streets and hills. Yet, we are governed as if it’s already happened. We are forced to take our shoes off at airports, our water bottles are contraband, and once we board the plane, we look around and pray we are not the next instrument of terror.
That is far from the worst that has been done to us. Our leaders have gone to great lengths to remind us bombs could go off anywhere at any moment and our only hope of preventing that is to not be the nation we were, but the nation the terrorists want us to be. They have once again shown themselves to be an administration without nuance. Instead of letting the agencies best equipped to go about the quiet business of combating this threat, we are served banalities like, “If we don’t fight the terrorists there, we’ll have to fight the terrorists here.”
Hence, in post 9/11 America, to defeat the Islamo-fascists, this government feels it must become more like the Islamo-fascists they envision; curtail civil liberties, ignore long held treaties, deny basic human rights — hardly fighting them on the beaches. Worse yet, this Neocon alchemy of fear has worked. There is a part of the population that falls back on the old canard, “I didn’t do anything wrong, so I have nothing to hide.” Except to hide from the terrorists who they assume will be found by illegal wire taps and denial of habeas corpus.
The ultimate aim of terrorism is to create a fearful people with a diminished sense of self, to create a population willing to go along with what is asked so long as the terror stops. Since 9/11, they hasn’t been a single act of terrorism on American soil, yet we have very much become a fearful people, a diminished people, a people whose liberties and rights and, to a significant extent, dignity has been taken from them. Terrorists didn’t do this, the President and all his men did it.
And the war trudged on and the economy suffered (in large part from the expenditure of the war – terrorists know it takes money to fight them) and the public was coaxed into forgetting.
Until now; John McCain in his newly resurrected presidential bid is trying resurrect that fear. He will chase Bin Laden to the “gates of hell.” He breathes life into the boogeyman, wanting to remind us of our pain, our fear. But ours is irrelevant and ever present, always just under the surface, and cynics like McCain know that and prey on it.
It’s too late though, regardless of what we think, or those who would lead us want us to think. Osama Bin Laden’s capture, even his death will not assuage our fears – perhaps satiate our need for vengeance – but our fear will remain because Bin Laden’s death will only add to his twisted legacy. Osama Bin Laden has become the symbol he wanted to be, the symbol of jihad among fanatics, the symbol of terror among decent people.
There is only one way to defeat terror, and it’s not on the battlefield: raise the flag of our own ideology, the one that guarantees inalienable rights, the one that holds certain truths to be self evident — and never allow fearful or corrupt men to take it from you.
(A special thanks to Bat-Ami Bar On whose 1991 essay, Why Terrorism Is Morally Problematic, is the basis for this work.)