Following the terrorist attacks last September, matters have been moving much too fast for a monthly periodical to have any hope of keeping up with events. It may be that, by the time these words appear in print, world affairs will have been restored to happy equilibrium, justice will have triumphed, and the severed heads of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein will be mounted on spikes outside the headquarters of the New York City Fire Department. On the other hand, maybe the world will be more chaotic than ever, and U.S. forces will still be struggling on an increasing number of battlefields across the globe. Whichever reality we will be confronting, one fact remains unchanged: On September 11, 2001, the United States received a series of historic lessons that we all absolutely have to learn. In the space of two horrific hours, it became grimly obvious to anyone with eyes to see just how the United States could be defeated, how we could be getting a foretaste of the fall of America. This might just be the last warning we receive. And we paid far, far too heavily for the lesson for us to ignore it.
Like most baby boomers, I grew up with the knowledge that the world might indeed be destroyed, but that the thermonuclear cataclysm would simply be too universal for us to worry about any particular country. As Tom Lehrer sang, “We’ll all fry together when we fry.” Given that knowledge, it was absurd to imagine the United States suffering any kind of defeat short of annihilation. This is what gave such a campy quality to those 1950’s books and films about Soviet takeovers of the country, since everybody knew that a Soviet attack would inevitably lead to Mutually Assured Destruction. Either the United States stands, or everyone falls.
On September 11, that simple equation was proved false. We learned a lot of things on that day—not least that civilian airliners potentially make terrifyingly effective guided missiles—but high on the list of lessons was that the United States does not have a functioning intelligence system. It has no agencies able to warn of mortal dangers to the republic, or even to identify those who might be mounting such threats. Although the massive terrorist operation must have been known to hundreds of participants and sympathizers beforehand, the United States picked up not a single leak. That is terrifying. Just read some of the threat analyses published in the months before September 11 by some of the highest counterterrorism officials in both the first Bush administration and the appalling Clinton regime. They demonstrate that they did not have a clue about the seriousness of the threat, who the groups are, or what states are backing them. Reading these merrily ignorant pieces, we can see that September 11 was destined to happen, sooner or later.
Much as I hate to say this, in light of the dreadful carnage at the World Trade Center, we got off much more lightly on that day than we had any right to expect. If matters had worked out only a little differently, we might also have lost the U.S. Capitol, an act of symbolic destruction that would have dramatically and irrevocably damaged the nation’s status around the globe—not to mention causing hundreds or thousands of additional deaths. The fact that this national icon still stands is due to the sheer dumb luck that one hijacked United Airlines aircraft, Flight 93, chanced to have on board some brave and determined passengers who were not going down without a fight. Say their names with awe and gratitude: Tom Burnett, Jeremy Glick, Mark Bingham, and Todd Beamer; and don’t forget the unnamed others whose deeds will never be known.
If matters had been slightly different, America could have lost much more that day, because we were totally unprotected. If the terrorists had wanted, they might have taken not just four airliners but ten or twenty, and caused even more mayhem. Had they decided to, they could have combined the aerial assault with a chemical attack, as they originally intended to do during the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. By noon that day, we might have been living in a country without a functioning representative government, with the numbers of dead running into the hundreds of thousands, and with the military struggling to keep order. If you want to see the chasm between the real threat posed by terrorism and the official perception, consider the aircraft carrier that the government sailed into New York Harbor shortly after the attack, notionally to protect the city. Think of all that firepower, all those state-of-the-art fighters, all that nuclear arsenal—and nothing for the ship to do except help transport corpses. The futility of U.S. military technology, when shorn of effective intelligence, has never been more tragically symbolized.
One attack, even on this scale, cannot cripple the United States, but I do not know how many other defeats it would take before social, economic, and political life really began to collapse. Don’t think this idea has not occurred to our enemies, however new its implications obviously are for our masters. As an all-too-plausible scenario for the fall of America, I offer a science-fiction novel published in 1972, which now reads like a highly relevant prophecy. In his book The Sheep Look Up, British author John Brunner portrays an America under siege by international terrorists—in this instance, based in Latin America rather than the Middle East. They organize aerial suicide attacks against U.S. targets, while simultaneously attacking on several other fronts. They release pests that destroy America’s crops; they unleash smallpox; and they poison the reservoirs of great cities with sinister hallucinogens that drive citizens to homicidal outbreaks.
As disaster approaches, the president declares a state of emergency in phrases that would have seemed hysterically alarmist right up until late 2001. He announces that
We have been attacked with the most cowardly, the most monstrous and the most evil weapons ever devised by wicked men. We are the victims of a combined chemical and biological attack. . . . One of the great cities of our nation today writhes in agony because the water supply, the precious diamond stream that nourishes our lives, has been poisoned. . . . Our enemies have succeeded in reducing our stocks of food to the point where we must share and share alike.
Ultimately, even these desperate measures fail. In the book’s final scene, a woman overseas complains of a ghastly burning smell, only to be told: “It’s from America. The wind’s blowing that way.” This could, just possibly, be the way the world ends—or to be more precise, the way America ends.
If this seems to resemble apocalyptic ranting on my part, well and good. The difference between us and our sworn enemies is that they are speaking the language of apocalypse and we are not, and this fact might give them a massive advantage. They know what the stakes are in this conflict, and it is high time that we learned. On that September day, many of us found out, for the first time, that millions of people around the world not only loathe us as Americans but rejoice when we are slaughtered. To understand this mentality, you might read the deranged public statements of Osama and his ilk, but you can also turn to liberal and leftist voices within our own society. Look at all the post-attack statements from American universities (and other areas bereft of sanity) saying more or less overtly what a salutary thing it was that the attacks had inflicted such a defeat on the Western civilization that they loathe. Or, as a true exercise in abnormal psychology, read Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and realize that the apocalypse he is describing is his conception of a happy ending. As one character declares while America burns, “We can just about restore the balance of the ecology, the biosphere . . . if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species.” (That’s us, by the way.)
The main practical lesson of recent events can be summarized starkly. For half a century, we have believed that the United States could be neither destroyed nor defeated, barring a nuclear holocaust. We were wrong. We face a deadly danger, and it is vitally necessary that we confront it. The difficulty is that most of us do not have the first idea of the revolutionary social and legal changes needed if we are to survive.
Above all, this means fundamentally reshaping our concept of intelligence and counterterrorism. And no, I am not talking about the wave of new security powers that have occupied center stage in the government’s response to the disasters. Improving airport security is a useful contribution, as is strengthening the defenses of nuclear power plants, reservoirs, and other points of vulnerability. Yet even placing an armored division at every one of these points would be useless, since there will always be too many places to defend: We live in, by far, the most target-rich environment on the planet. If we do not know when and where the threats are coming, we cannot possibly defeat them. Worse, seeing all those uniforms and firepower provides a false sense of security, overawing everyone except the terrorists. Other “security” nostrums like national identity cards have as little merit. And lifting restrictions on bugging and eavesdropping is worse than futile, since these new powers encourage security agencies to rely on electronic surveillance technologies of the sort that proved worthless in defending the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
There are four issues that we need to think very hard about in developing a functioning response to terrorism as we face it today. None of these is a pleasant prospect, but they all have to be considered urgently and implemented within months, not years. Based on the historical experience of many counterterrorist wars over the last half-century, I offer these propositions as a basis for debate.
First: No terrorist campaign has ever been defeated or prevented without aggressive interrogation techniques of a kind that are almost certainly illegal in the United States. Whether these methods amount to torture is a matter of semantics, but at the least, we are talking about something like the old third degree.
Second: No terrorist campaign has ever been defeated without the massive official use of moles, infiltrators, and provocateurs, including the use of dubious characters who are probably guilty themselves of criminal and terrorist acts, including murder. Together with the methods mentioned in the first point, this is the only way to obtain “human intelligence” from within groups, above all about a group’s future choice of targets.
Third: No campaign has ever been carried on while terrorist suspects have the panoply of legal protections currently available in the United States, protections that include access to lawyers, limits on police powers of detention, a right to bail, and so on.
Fourth: All successful antiterrorist campaigns—and there have been many—have, at some stage, involved the extra-legal assassination of suspected leaders, either inside the state under attack or overseas.
America either needs a massive change in its antiterrorist laws or, at least temporarily, the courts must be prevented from intervening in the antiterrorist war. We don’t need to become a police state to save ourselves, but we have to consider how far other democracies have gone in order to preserve functioning societies. If we are not prepared to take (to some extent) the same path as Israel, France, Spain, and Great Britain, then we have no right to complain the next time terrorists massacre thousands more of our citizens. The last time I read the Declaration of Independence, it said that the first basic right of citizens was life and its preservation; and if a state fails to protect that right, then it simply has no right to continue.