Year Zero

No Breast-Beating

by Jonathan Wallace

September 18, 2001

Year Zero is an episodic series of essays on ethical and practical implications of the present crisis. Subscribe here.

Within a few hours after running home across the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday morning, looking back repeatedly at the burning towers, I wrote an essay entitled A Hard Rain describing my experience. It concluded with the following words:

But we are not unresponsible for the monsters; they are responsible for themselves, certainly, as moral actors, but we did our part in their creation... When we squeeze people and crush them, make them live in humiliation and without the air and water, autonomy and self respect necessary to sustain them as humans, we make monsters.

Subsequent to the succeeding waves of emotion and insight I have experienced in the seven days since the attack, I do not repudiate these words. But as I will explain, I now believe they are partly irrelevant.

In these seven days, there have been a lot of messages on the lists I follow, and numerous essays forwarded to me, which share a common theme, that our pigeons have come home to roost, that the world is angry for our sins, that the people hammered by the Apache helicopters and F-16s we supply to Israel have had their revenge.

I believe we have made serious mistakes, both moral and practical ones, in the Middle East and elsewhere. We are not off the hook for these, and it is salutary for us to continue the process, in background now and more loudly when the time is right, of opposing these and trying to prevent their recurrence.

But what happened on Tuesday morning was not very much about that anger--though it channeled it, certainly. Individuals like Mohammad Atta, a middle class graduate student with a degree in urban planning, apparently decided to become suicide bombers through their anger about U.S. intervention in the Middle East. And we must take it very seriously when educated people with lifestyles that overlap ours--Atta had German friends and took them on a visit to Egypt--decide to kill themselves in order to slay us.

But the intelligence which sent them-- I will call it Osama bin Laden for convenience, though it may be someone in the shadows or a collective--has a different goal. Tuesday morning, the two planes didn't slam into the two towers from anger. They did it for geopolitics. Bin Laden--the man or the collective--sees an opening today to create a fundamentalist Arab superpower in the middle east. In order to do so, he must clear the United States out of the way. By revealing us to be self-infatuated, sluggish, boastful with nothing to back it up--a "paper tiger"--he can attract millions of fence-sitting radicalized Moslems to support him in numerous countries. He can overthrow weak secular governments and replace them with his people. He can destroy Israel and sit down at the table of world powers, a brand new player, while a distracted and suddenly weakened United States tries to pick itself up off the floor.

That intelligence belongs to one of those men who warp history, who will send millions to die and to kill millions if given the chance.

Mohammad Atta, left to his own devices, might have wrapped dynamite around his waist and blown up twenty or thirty people on the street, but he would not have had the means to kill six thousand people. The intelligence behind him is not angry like Atta was; it is dispassionate, and has the ability to take a very long term view, planning actions for five years before carrying them out. I don't believe the Nazis ever did that; Hitler was impulsive, emotional, an improviser, while bin Laden seems to be calmer, saner and therefore even more dangerous. Right now, bin Laden makes Hitler look like a wanker. I imagine there are a few aging Japanese military men today marvelling that their nations had to spend billions building planes and carriers to accomplish less than bin Laden did with box cutters and our own airplanes.

The attack on the WTC was an action carefully planned to accomplish maximum destructive effect on a number of levels.

First, it killed more people than we ever believed a terrorist attack possibly could. Emergency rooms scrambled everywhere around New York waiting for thousands of casualties who never came. Why? Because an intelligence-- bin Laden--had hit them with two jets, poured burning fuel over them, choked them with smoke, caused a few of them to jump from windows, and then dropped two 110 story buildings on them. There were a few injuries--only 600 units of all the blood donated on Tuesday were ever used--but most people either got away without a scratch--as I did-- or died.

Second, the attack humiliated us by illustrating how a few men, armed with box-cutters and a stronger will than ours, could take airplanes and use them to kill thousands of people.

Third, the attack humiliated us by bringing down the towers, an important symbol of American financial and cultural power.

Fourth, the attack humiliated us by illustrating to the world, particularly to the disaffected Moslems who are bin Laden's constituency, that we are clueless, complacent and slow, and that the "features" of our society--its openness in particular--are really "bugs" which can be devastatingly exploited by our adversaries.

Fifth, (unless forestalled by very rapid governmental and Fed action), the attack will substantially accelerate the downward spiral of our economy, as a ripple effect brings down insurance companies and airlines, their suppliers, and the purveyors of all the goods and services that people don't buy in an emergency.

Sixth, the attack may cause us to react intemperately, pouring lethal force down on civilians as bin Laden did here, and thereby converting those formerly undecided populations to supporters of bin Laden. (Our president's inadvertent use of the word "crusade" speaks volumes.)

The plea I uttered in the immediate aftermath, for us to examine our role in the creation of monsters, is still an exercise we need to carry out. But it is not a solution to the immediate problem. The people writing essays and list messages today, urging that we negotiate, that we understand, that we placate, are just wrong. You can't negotiate with a cold, murderous geopolitician. You would be talking two different languages. Bin Laden--if it is him personally--didn't grow up in a Palestinian refugee camp, and he was never rocketed by Apache helicopters in Gaza. He was the son of a Saudi construction billionaire, and he sees an opportunity now to construct a fundamentalist superpower, with himself at the head. And he's going to go for it. What happened on Tuesday, September 11 was a masterful first move in that game. He doesn't want or need anything from us, except to get out of the way. Preferably by dying.

I believe there will be more shots fired at us in this war. At that point, the situation is admirably simplified. "Sir," said Dr. Johnson, " when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." On Tuesday morning, below WTC Two, I discovered-- if I needed reminding--that I would really rather live. Its important to preserve our ethics and our personality --but let's make sure we live. We can revert to pondering our sins later, when there is time.