[This is the first in a series of retrospective articles originally posted to my personal website on Lycos/Tripod in 2001, concerning my thoughts on the events of five years ago, as they unfolded at the time]
The Folly of EmpireNew York, September 21st, 2001
It's times like these that I wish Barbara Tuchman was still with us.
Though not considered a "professional" historian by the literati, she nevertheless crafted compelling and thoroughly researched historical prose, and opened our eyes to aspects of our past we had never otherwise considered.
Her insightful book, "The March of Folly", published in 1985, described in lurid detail the pervasive presense of folly in the behavior of governments through the ages. Tuchman's book warned us against the "pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interersts, despite the availability of feasible alternatives". In her examples of such, including Troy, the Protestant reformation, the British in North America and the U.S. in Vietnam, an alternative course of action was available, the actions were endorsed by a group, not just an individual leader, and the actions were perceived as counter productive in their own time. Yet those actions persisted on to their - in hindsight - logical conclusions.
My biggest concern over the events of September 11th is that Americans, driven by passions rather than reason, will march down that road yet again, thus proving to the world that we not only cannot learn anything from history, but that we also learn nothing from even our own experience.
Dubya keeps repeating, like a skipping CD, that we are in a New Kind of War. So far, I've seen nothing from those in Government, however, suggesting that they actually DO comprehend that. Like his father before him, Dubya surrounds himself with advisors, many of whom are experienced in international folly of all sorts, and thus his first major action is to gather a coalition, call up the reserves, and send out the warships. What are warships and troops going to DO, other than make things worse?? The mightiest military machine in the world could not stop what happened to the WTC, nor is it capable of stopping other acts of subversive terrorism. It's the wrong machinery for the wrong war.
I've seen a lot of disgusting things go on this past 10 days. First and foremost, of course, are the horrific acts of 9/11 themselves - that almost goes without saying. But next come the sickening words of the pundits and pols. When Steve Dunlevy of the New York Post says "kill them all" I want to yank his Writer's Guild card. I also take issue with people such as Hal Lindsay, who has made a career out of apocalyptic biblical Prophesy, who, that very day, on WorldNetDaily, declared, in essence "I told ya so, hallelujah, Armageddon is here!" This kind of irresponsible inflammatory talk has been the mother's milk of Folly throughout the ages. I see neither Lindsay nor Dunlevy marching to the nearest Armed Services recruiter and volunteering for ground-pounding duty in the minefields of Afghanistan.
While no one can condone the atrocities of September 11th, one can certainly understand why some people can be motivated to perform them. There are potentially half-a-billion souls out there who have every reason to hate our guts. Bombing, shooting and starving non-combatant civilians has been our foreign policy for six decades. (In fact the idea of "total war" was first introduced by General William Tecumseh Sherman, on our own soil, in the War of Southern Secession.) While the American people may be the most fair, tolerant and generous people in the world, their government - in their names and with their tax dollars - are something else again. It's only a wonder something like this hasn't happened much sooner. (In 1993, it almost did, in the first WTC bombing, but the perpetrators bungled the job.)
Despite the stuff you read about an Islamic "holy war", these attacks aren't about religion - at least not by the Bin Ladens of the world. Those like him who inspire such acts - in religion's name - come themselves from wealthy, privileged, elitist, and very secular backgrounds. This so-called "holy jihad", however, IS, all about EGO - and there's more than enough ego to go around on all sides. Ego will also lead us to folly if we don't settle down and choose to curb our baser impulses.
In the search for reasons for the attack, the WTC was stated to be the largest symbol of "American" capitalist might. But one must consider that about half the office space in the WTC was rented by foreign firms doing business in the U.S., including Japan, India, Holland, and Britain. It has been estimated that 80 countries lost citizens in the attack. The WTC was never a symbol of "American capitalist hegemonic power" so much as it was one of private, peaceful, international capitalist cooperation. Now ask yourself - is that something Islamist political extremists desire?? Of course not. It's the mixing of cultures and free exchange of goods, service and ideas that they fear and loathe the most, making the WTC a far more multi-dimensional target.
I heard someone say last night that "Islam has been hijacked" - how true. Islam itself is about peace and tolerance, but the extremist minority "Islamist" political cult grossly misstates Islamic teaching to justify their own violent actions, in much the same way Christian "fundamentalists" in our own country quote the Bible out of context to build support for their own political agendas. If anything, Islamists just want the U.S. out of the way so they can continue on unimpeded. Fortunately, they are only a tiny minority in the Arab world, and stand little chance of wielding much influence - unless we hand them an opportunity by continuing to be the bullies we have been.
Domestically, pundits are rattling sabers, and calls for curbing essential freedoms are coming from the political class, who are undoubtedly rubbing their hands gleefully at the thought of eliminating the last vestiges of individual liberty in America, in the name of "safety and security".
Bush last night called for the creation of a new cabinet post - the "Office of Homeland Security". What a great spin - and perhaps it's even well-intentioned. It'll start out fighting the good fight against terrorism, and when it's done, it'll have to find other "enemies" domestically in order to justify its continued existence. This is how the KGB got started. PA Governor Tom Ridge, tapped by Bush last night to head the new agency, said, "I think it's all right to admit that I'm saddened that this job is even necessary, but it is necessary, so I will give it everything that I have." Will he be equally gladdened, then, to see the job go away again at the end of the War on Terrorism? Doubtful.
It has been oft-repeated that "freedom" was attacked that day. I disagree. Terrorists can't take away American freedom - only our own government can - in your name and with your tax dollars. For decades, essential liberties that our forefathers died to preserve have been continuously eroded away by our own government; and that war just gives the political class an opportunity to kick domestic tyranny up a notch or two. Freedom has been under attack by our own "representatives" for far too long, to now suddenly turn around and point fingers elsewhere. It sickened me yesterday to see a CNN poll that said 69% of those responding claimed to be willing to accept curbs on freedom in exchange for "security". Yet more folly posing as "democracy", and the best reason for an Electoral College that I can think of.
If you shut down the Bill of Rights, the terrorists win. We must jealously guard our freedoms; we must increase, rather than limit, civil liberties, and we must inform our elected representatives - in a way that is crystal clear - that any such small-minded, tyrannical responses are inappropriate, and will be resisted. In fact, when ANYone in the political class promotes curbs on essential liberties as a response to terrorism, your immediate response to THEM should be: "Whose side are you ON, anyway?"
Folks, life is not safe. Life is not "secure". Never has been, never will be. We are each one of us ultimately responsible for our own safety and security - that was the real moral lesson of Flight 93, where some brave passengers took on the hijackers at a crucial moment, sacrificing themselves for the sake of thousands of others. These are the lessons we should be teaching our children. Blind obedience to "authority", and closing your eyes and trusting the political class to act in your best interests, was the height of folly in the best of times. We cannot hide our collective heads in the sand now, at this critical moment for our nation's future.
As friend and author L.Neil Smith said in a recent article: "...these things happen to nations with imperial ambitions. There has never been a major act of terrorism I know of that hasn't resulted from an act of government that violated somebody's rights. The way to keep this sort of thing from happening again is to stop those violations."
We need to do three things as a nation: (1) we need to - with our allies - rout out terrorists all over the world and bring them to justice, (2) develop complete energy independence, thus eliminating at least ONE cause of foreign interventionism, and (3) a much harder proposition - we must do what we can here at home to eliminate the causes of terrorist actions - i.e., the things our government does in our names, and with our tax dollars, that help create the all-consuming hatred. Let me amplify...
(1) Terrorism is a blight that must be wiped from the face of the earth. We will not achieve that by noble objective, however, by sending in the Reserves as an invasion force to kill Afghan civilians. Terrorism involves 30 different groups spread out among 60 different countries. Hunting them all down and bringing them to justice is going to take years, perhaps a decade or more. It's going to take old-fashioned on the ground espionage work and a lot of civil police work. Any military action will only be effective in the form of surgical strikes at specific targets, assuming they can be found. But if we as a nation are to regain any semblance of moral authority in the world from here on in, we should begin by removing the words "collateral damage" from our lexicon. That should no longer be considered an option, as that turns us into our enemy, countering hate with hate. We can't do this out of a desire for vengeance, but rather for justice.
(2) We've let the oil cartels on both sides of the ocean have their way for far too long. The 1973 Arab embargo should have taught us something - it did not. We import more Persian Gulf oil more than ever, about 50%. Energy independence is more than just drill, drill, drill. It's about options. There are technologies out there that have been all but totally suppressed for the sake of Big Oil, like hydrogen, solar, and fuel cells. We need to push these technologies out the gate as fast as we can. Our biggest strength is our creativity. We should encourage the computer generation to work from home, thus saving billions in energy costs now racked up from daily commuting
(3) In the final analysis, though, we must ultimately bring the political class to heel and hold them to account for the interventionist mess they got us into. That will probably take a lot longer than rooting out terrorist cells, as the political class has wormed its way into absolute power over six or more decades. Their policies and actions have been responsible for the deaths of millions of civilians of foreign nations over that time, from Japan to Vietnam to Iraq. Once we've succeeded in wiping out global terrorism, the same fate must be meted out to the American political class.
Terrorism is generated by the total loss of options, the total loss of hope, and persistant violations of other's soverign rights by more powerful countries. If we seriously propose to go around the world cleaning up everyone's house, we, at the very least, should also clean up our own at the same time.