On 11 September 2001, as I mentioned in my last post, a student of mine -- enrolled in a course entitled Historical Studies in the Origins of War -- invited me to submit an op-ed to the University of Tulsa Collegian, commenting on the significance of what had just happened. I did what she asked. She published it and it was later reprinted in The American Oxonian. Here is what I had to say:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade;
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night
--W. H. Auden, September 1, 1939
For something like a decade now, we have been at war, and we have resolutely refused to contemplate the possibility, much less acknowledge the fact and come to grips with its significance. Such an eventuality was for us unthinkable. That someone should launch a massive assault on unarmed civilians within our borders was, as the editors of The New York Times put it last Wednesday in a passage revealing more about its authors than about the conflagration that had just taken place, “unfathomable.”
No one in the city of New York feels lucky right now, and I can understand why. But those still alive should congratulate themselves on their good fortune, for they are, in fact, exceedingly lucky. After all, the assault mounted on them could have taken the form of a nuclear bomb. What is there to stop someone from hiding a nuclear device in a container; shipping it to New York, Houston, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Oakland; and detonating it from across the seas with a cell phone? What prevents an attack with nerve gas or anthrax?
Last Tuesday, we got a wake-up call, and as a nation we are fortunate that this call did not take a form more horrible than the one it took. We ignored the significance of earlier assaults on our country: the attempt to assassinate George Bush when he visited Kuwait shortly after his Presidency, the attempted bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the bombing of our military installations in Saudia Arabia at the Khobar Towers in 1996, the more recent bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack in Yemen on the U.S.S. Cole. We treated these as mere criminal acts, and in accord with the feckless legalism that governs our way of thinking we sought to track down and punish the perpetrators. We failed to treat their assaults and attempted assaults as acts of war perpetrated by shadowy organizations acting in a clandestine manner on behalf of governments and political leaders that we could easily identify, locate, and eliminate. We preferred to look the other way because it seemed convenient to do so.
To take the actual attacks seriously, to take the attacks that were foiled and those which were threatened even more seriously, would have required that we acknowledge the grotesque inadequacy of our security measures, the deterioration of our intelligence apparatus, the decline of our military strength, and do something about them--which would mean rethinking our presumption that in 1989 or thereabouts we achieved nirvana and reconsidering our ridiculous notion that paying down the national debt was more essential to our well-being than having a military force in place capable of intimidating our enemies. We did not then have the stomach to contemplate such horrors. We preferred to balance the budget--not by paring social programs, which were looked on as sacred, but by cutting to the bone appropriations for the military and for the Central Intelligence Agency. This apparatus, we told ourselves, was an anachronism. Even in the Cold War, we were repeatedly told by the great and the good, such military expenditures had proved to be unnecessary--little but an occasion for waste, fraud, and mismanagement.
The truth is that the world became more dangerous rather than less so in 1989, and the first sign of this was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union reined in its clients for fear of our holding it responsible for their attacks on us. Since the end of the Cold War, we have had a measure of anarchy within the international arena, and governments in Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian entity have opted to sponsor projects that the Soviets would have shied away from.
If, now that they have our attention, we put our primary emphasis on tracking down the terrorists and on killing Osama bin Laden and his associates, we will fail. There will be some satisfaction in knowing that we have punished some of the culprits, but we will not be able to find most of them, and those whom we do find and kill will quite soon be replaced by others of the same kind--for there are quarters where we are hated, and in those quarters it is easy to find men courageous enough to sacrifice their lives in the course of wreaking destruction on us.
The news of the destruction of the World Trade Center occasioned rejoicing in Cairo, in Baghdad, in the territory controlled by the Palestinian entity, and, I am told, in classes taught by the English Institute on the university campus where I teach: the men who hijacked the planes and turned them into lethal weapons this past Tuesday are regarded in these quarters as heroes and as martyrs. We are hated for our wealth, for our power, and for our self-confidence--for supporting Israel, for coming to the defense of the Bosnian Muslims and the Kosovars, for driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, for standing in the way of some of the murderers and thugs who infest this planet; and we are despised for our moral weakness; for our comfortable, self-satisfied lives; for our softness and complacency; and, above all else, for our unwillingness to sacrifice the lives of our citizens on the field of the sword. Nothing will alter any of this--not even our humiliation, nor our complete destruction, Nothing will alter the situation--until and unless we demonstrate a capacity to crush those who assault us and a determination to do so. We cannot be loved and should not expect to be loved. We can be respected--but only if we are feared.
We cannot stop all of the terrorists; we cannot deter attacks on the part of men willing to commit suicide in order to make those attacks. We can, however, target the fat, sleek, comfortable, calculating men who sponsor terrorism--the men who run Iraq, Iran, Syria, the Sudan, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian entity, the men who manage their armies and intelligence services. We need to make an example of a sufficient number of these that their counterparts and successors think twice as to whether it is prudent to provide would-be terrorists with the money, the training, and the logistical support necessary for their pursuit of our destruction. Ronald Reagan did this once in the case of Muammar Gaddafi, and we have heard next to nothing from that particular tyrant since.
The only question now is whether anyone in Washington realizes the enormity of what we are up against. Perhaps it will take a nuclear blast before someone answers the wake-up call. Personally, if the current administration opts not to follow the course that I recommend, I would not think it prudent to accept employment and reside in New York or Washington. If we are as squeamish about risking the lives of our soldiers, about taking the lives of foreign dignitaries, about making war on countries that sponsor those who make war on us, if we remain as feckless generally as we have been in the low dishonest decade that has just ended, down the road we will pay a far, far heavier price than the one that our fellow countrymen in New York have already paid.
To the would-be appeasers in our midst, to the multitudes in my own generation who forgot during the Vietnam War that they have a country, to those inclined to think that the appropriate response to mass murder is negotiation and dialogue, I suggest a close reading and careful consideration of the significance and force of what Herman Melville wrote on the occasion of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: “There is sobbing of the strong,/And a pall upon the land;/But the People in their weeping/Bare the iron hand;/Beware the People weeping/When they bare the iron hand.”
This is pretty strong stuff, I realize. But nothing has happened since to change my mind. It is a good thing that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are gone. It will be a fine thing when Muammar Gaddafi is no more, and it would be an even finer thing if the Assad family in Syria were to suffer the same fate.
I doubt, however, that we are militarily prepared for what is to come, and I worry that the budget cuts that the future will inevitably bring will leave us with a military that is little more than a hollow shell. We still live in a very dangerous world, and we tend to be complacent. 9/11 was by no means the last of the horrors that we are destined to face. The Iranians are seeking nuclear weapons, and the Chinese military is itching for a fight. If we do not wake up and prepare for the worst, we will before long face a reckoning far more devastating than the one we faced ten years ago.