by Roger Bourke White, Jr.
copyright Sep 2002, Jan 2003, Apr 2004, Sep 2005, Sep 2006
The celebrations have come and gone.
The "We will not forget!" people have cried for the pictures and sound bites, and said they won't forget yet another time.
It's time to examine whether or not American Media and American Leadership have stopped cowering behind speeches of bravado, and really gotten down to the business of getting on with our lives. Sad to say, the answer is a resounding, "No." American Leadership and American Media are still pissing in their pants, and now they are trying hard to institutionalize their fear.
American Media has made this remembrance into not just a day-long, but a week-long to twenty day-long event -- in terms of coverage it ranks bigger than Labor Day and is closing in on Thanksgiving. At this rate, I expect we shall start seeing "We Remember Day" Sales at retailers next year, and it might take two years before we see the first ad proclaiming, "Our prices knocked down lower than the Twin Towers!" but not much longer.
The President, being the perfect politician, felt the celebration would not be complete without some government participation, so he raised the Terrorist Color Code a notch. This in spite of the fact that most pundits knowledgeable on al Qaida were declaring that al Qaida doesn't "do" holidays. In my words, "al Qaida doesn't do holidays, they do Candid Camera." (Remember the theme song: When you least expect it... your elected ... your the star today!)
(A side item: I find it curious that the casualty reports of 9-11 on the news are now always saying, " [x number of] people were casualties, not counting the terrorists." As if... what? the terrorists aren't people? It changes the casualty count by an insignificant nineteen people, but I guess the media is trying to point out that these terrorists aren't people in the media's eyes.)
There are several things wrong with this "national holiday" approach.
First, the terrorists launched this attack to have us remember. This holiday approach is playing right into their hands. Terrorists may be able to continue to do "low-level harm", but "high level harm" is going to be very difficult even if the government does nothing. Al Qaida in particular, is now dead as a high-profile harm-doer. They are... too high profile -- it's a million-to-one that they can do any high profile harm again. But in the name of "human interest" the media will not let the "al Qaida act" die, or become a part of dismal history. The media people are going to keep the 9-11 act and it's message fresh and alive, and they are going to keep the al Qaida threat, fresh and alive, even though they are now "has-beens" in the real world. Our media is going to do 100% of the "legwork" to accomplish the terrorist's goals of keeping the 9-11 message alive and fresh.
Second, President Bush and the political leadership is playing even further into the terrorists hands by raising the Terrorist Alert Flag, and having Vice President Dick Cheney ride out this proto-holiday in "an undisclosed place." If Bush raised the alert for the reason he said he did -- "based on terrorist chatter" -- then he's handed al Qaida a super easy way to threaten America again -- just make lots of phone calls. If he did because it was politically expedient, then he is "crying wolf" and the usefulness of this terrorist alert system is probably fatally wounded before it has lived six months. For which ever reason, a lot of long-term damage has been done by raising the alert for this proto-holiday.
|A high ranking US government official spending the 9-11 proto-holiday at an "undisclosed location".|
Bush further weakened the Alert system by saying in effect, "Don't mind this alert-raising... go about your celebrating as if I hadn't done it." If you're going to announce an alert-raising, and then say it doesn't mean anything, that's pretty confusing and credibility-shrinking to the system. And it sounds real political.
Senator Mc Carthy would be proud. On September 12th the government corralled a bunch of Lackawanan Yemini-Americans and branded them an Al Qaida "sleeper cell", and three Arab-American medical students were pulled over on a Florida Interstate for 13 hours because a waitress in Georgia overheard them make disparaging remarks about America and presumed they were terrorist plotters. Further, even though nothing incriminating was found on the students or their cars, after thirteen hours of searching, the hospital that they were going to work at in Miami stated they were now not welcome because the hospital had received threatening e-mails.
The medical students are clearly innocent of any wrong doing. Yet the hospital and the community are turning on them viciously. If this isn't panic-driven witch hunting, what is?
The theme of the Media and Leadership should be "business as usual." If we were truly "not going to be bowed by this terrorist attack", then we should mostly ignore it. Instead of spending billions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours on terrorist security, we would be spending that time on three other, much more important, things:
These are important issues that need our American Leadership attention -- al Qaida is a Panic-induced sideshow.
I say it again: al Qaida is a Panic-induced sideshow. And the sooner the American people convince the Leadership and the Media of that, the better off the nation will be. (Clearly the Leadership and the Media are not going to try and convince the American people, they have no interest in doing so. This is good theater.)
The 9/11 Investigation Committee is clearly the child of activist relatives of the WTC- and airliner-casualties -- their lawyer is the person reported in the media as being the person in charge of picking the initial committee members. This means "the rich" of the 9/11 Disaster are now showing some visibility. It has been somewhat out of memorable disaster character that no "poster child" for the 9/11 disaster has surfaced. Compare the personalities of the 9/11 Disaster to those of the Titanic: in 9/11 there are none. Forming this committee may spring from the "root need" to have some personalities connected to this disaster.
Up until now American society has been fairly restrained about "fingerpointing" on this disaster, which is a very good thing. But as 9/11 moves from being current events into becoming part of the national history, it's not surprising that the emotional impulse to "figure out just what happened" should rise. The emotional roots that drive the formation of this committee are very similar to the emotional roots that keep America wondering, "Who killed JFK?" But, unlike the Warren Commission, which formed quickly to do it's research and had a clear mandate to do an evenhanded job of the research, this 9/11 Committee is forming in a leisurely way, and is being driven by a single special interest group. In this way the beginning of the 9/11 Committee investigation more closely resembles the beginning of the Jim Garrison investigation of JFK than the Warren Commission investigation.
Given it's late start and special interest sponsorship, I don't hold out much hope for a dispassionate report from this commission. If it is dispassionate, it will be both a good thing... and something that is forgotten quickly. What we are most likely to get out of this commission's report is a "standardizing" of the mythology surrounding 9/11. And, in a way, that won't be a bad thing. American society will need a well developed 9/11 mythology before it is satisfied and ready to put 9/11 behind it.
What will be bad is if this committee turns into a focal point for witch-hunting. The more it becomes a committee of inquisition, and the more careers and lives are ruined by its findings, the more pathological it will have become. Witch-hunting is the threat of a committee such as this, and something that should be guarded against.
Yes, I can spell w-i-t-c-h h-u-n-t. An editorial in the April 15th Asian Wall Street Journal (I'm living in Korea as I write this.) talks about "The 9/11 Widows". It describes the media circus that has established itself around "The Jersey Girls" -- four activist widows of firefighters who died in the WTC.
The 9/11 Committee has chosen to go witch hunting, rather than myth defining. It's not too surprising given who was pushing for the formation of the committee and the heated political environment of the spring/summer of 2004, but it is disappointing.
What is uncanny is the similarity between the roles of the Jersey Girls, and the roles of the teenage accusers in the Salem witch trials. In both cases a handful of people with an emotional interest in the subject, but no other apparent expertise, are suddenly anointed as "authorities" on the subject by influential members of the community. These freshly scrubbed authorities are then encouraged to make accusations, and those accusations are then acted upon -- with severely damaging results to other members of the community.
Years later, this choice of action in Salem was seen as terribly backward. Years from now will the actions of the 9/11 Committee, the Jersey Girls and the media be seen in any better light?
This choice of conduct also sheds some light on what the environment was like in Salem at the time. I speculate that the people of Salem where severely stressed about some unsolved crisis that year, and that stress got wrapped into a political power play. One side chose to play the "witch card" to further their position, and the trials began.
Hurricane Katrina did an amazing amount of damage. Imagine, and entire large American city completely abandoned for many months! I've never heard of it happening before. It's an American Pompeii.
That's the bad news. The good news is that it has sharply demonstrated that terrorism isn't the biggest threat to America's well-being. I have been surprised at how quickly and virulently the criticism of the Bush government's handling of Katrina has evolved (it got big in the media only two weeks after Katrina struck, versus two years for serious criticism of 9-11 to evolve).
This loud and harsh criticism is an important step in ending the 9-11 Panic. It signals that Americans are ready to move on and worry about something else. Part of the criticism I have read is that FEMA's ability to respond to this kind of disaster was diminished as it was folded into Homeland Security. This kind of criticism, true or not, is excellent to hear. Once again, it is an indication that terrorism is returning to it's pre-9-11 status as one-of-many problems that threaten America, not something special. The more this evolution continues, the fewer silly and expensive mistakes concerning terrorism the American community will condone.
Katrina is a huge, ugly mess, but its silver lining is that I think it will help America move on from 9-11, and that's a very good thing.
Another interesting part of this phenomenon is that while the government wholeheartedly backed media coverage of 9-11 and the War on Terrorism, it has been trying hard to restrict the media's coverage of the chaos following Katrina -- press are discouraged from going "into the danger zone", and CNN is filing a law suit to allow it to show pictures of bodies floating in the floodwaters. This change in relation between government and media over Katrina goes along with my hypothesis that the interest in Terrorism is supported by an unholy alliance between government, media and terrorists. The government looks good when it postures about fighting terrorism, the media looks good when it reports favorably on the government dealing with scary bad guys, and the terrorists are doing Terrorism for the publicity (they would be in some other crime if it weren't for the publicity). It should be no surprise that the government is not going to accommodate the media so graciously when the media is reporting government bungles instead of government heroics.
This means that thanks to Katrina and the surprisingly long and difficult Iraq-Afghan War, the government-media relation is getting back to a more traditional "arms-length" relation, which should be a good thing for civil liberties and the American community.
Gen X has now experienced their "Cuban Missile Crisis" (the bad choices that come from government Groupthink) and their "Vietnam" (the bad choices that come from international adventurism). As of Bush's October speech on Iraq, Gen X Americans are now experiencing first hand a president endorsing the Domino Theory that was the key justification for Vietnam intervention. (Bush saying, "If we don't stop the enemy in Iraq, they will spread throughout the Middle East.", is almost word-for-word Johnson saying, "If we don't stop the enemy in Vietnam, they will spread throughout Southeast Asia.")
All of these flashbacks from the past are going to make the country humbler and wiser for another generation. That's my comforting thought to come from these huge pair of messes.
The Katrina Disaster also essentially finishes the legacy of the Bush administration -- as time passes, he will be known more and more as The Disaster President. He will be the president who's time started with the 9-11 Disaster, which he handled well, and ended with the Katrina Disaster, which he handled poorly. The poetry and symmetry of this image is too hard to pass up, so it will become legendary, whether it is true or not.
I have just returned to the US after spending much of the year teaching in Korea.
The "lets move beyond this" philosophy of dealing with 9-11 is now dead and buried. In it's place the witch hunting has never been more alive.
It's spooky to say this, but Bush now appears to be a "cool head" in the swirl of 9-11 related thinking in the US. The Democrats are criticizing the Bush Administration, but they are criticizing them for not doing enough!! Gag!
The original 9-11 Event was tragic, and big. It was a billion dollar event. The US reaction to it over the last five years has scratched it into a trillion dollar event. Compared to what it has evolved into, the original 9-11 Event was a mosquito bite on the US. I still argue that it could have stayed mosquito bite size. The key was not to scratch the itch. The key was to follow a business-as-usual strategy, as if the event had never happened. Following this strategy would have been a decisive defeat to those nebulous terrorists that Bush has been trying to make war on for the last five years. Instead, Bush, with a lot of support from the American public, chose to scratch the itch... and keep scratching it... and keep scratching it...
Bush should have said, "The 9-11 Event is a one-of-a-kind incident. We should mourn for the tragedy, but we should not change our American way of life for it. Any change we make in response to this event is a victory for the terrorists." Instead Bush said, "OK, lets make war on those terrible people, and lets make lots of changes to how we live... so we will be safer."
Sadly, the Bush Administration has demonstrated once again how little sense there is in treating wacky bandits as if they are a nation. You treat wacky bandits like they are criminals, not nationals.
Equally sadly, the Bush Administration has been much more successful at training Americans in how to live their lives in fear, and at how giving up their civil liberties will relieve that fear.
Each day that we spend in Iraq makes it clearer that the original decision to go in was driven by Panic Thinking -- meaning that emotions at the time of 9-11 told the Bush Administration that starting the war was a really good idea, but in the long run it has turned out to be a hugely costly mistake because it was so poorly thought through at the time when the decision to act was made.(See Roger's Thinking Stack, Panic Thinking) Sadly, the Iraq situation has still not been thought through well -- the Bush Administration still refuses to identify well who it is fighting and what those people are fighting for. (See Long Wars)
Sadly, the decline in the popularity of Bush's handling of the 9-11 challenge has not been accompanied by a rise in what I would consider cool-headed thinking. Sadly, the Bush Response to 9-11 hasn't worked out. The Bush response was:
If that response had worked, Americans would feel safer now, and we would be putting 9-11 behind us. Instead the Bush Response has transformed America into a stressed community on the 9-11 issue and the response. Sadly, when a community gets stressed because conventional solutions to a problem don't work, the community starts seriously considering wackier solutions, not saner solutions. In the case of 9-11, the Bush Response was the conventional response. (See Ruthless Leaders, the part played by community stress)
What I see happening at this Fifth Anniversary of 9-11 is a frightening drift towards more radical actions to solve the twin intractable problems of the Iraq War and worrying about Terrorists. I'm happy to see more people saying "Bush is wrong.", I'm unhappy to see them saying in the next breath, "We need even more violence, more safeguards, more loss of civil liberties to solve this problem."
No one else is saying it, but I'll say it: We need to back off. We need to do less about terrorism, not more. We need to take a new look at this problem. Terrorism is a symptom, not a cause. We need to properly identify the cause. We need to identify the following:
I'll say it again: terrorism is advertising. If you take away it's advertising value, terrorism will vanish. Sadly, the publicity return on terrorist acts has never been higher. We have now reached the days I talked about four years ago: the days when even a terrorist fantasy can gain a huge response from US government and US media, in the summer 2005 case it was the fantasy of being able to take common liquids on to a plane and make them into an explosive.
(Note: If making liquid bombs was as easy as Homeland Defense makes it out to be (just bring some liquids on a plane and mix them together), teenagers would have been making liquid bombs for decades! Just like they have been making pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails for decades. As one article writer put it, "Homeland security is now letting Hollywood fantasy dictate its security policy." I will go one step further: It's not Hollywood fantasy, it's teenage fantasy -- any way a teenager can imagine to blow something up, Homeland Security is going to worry about. I will go one step further: this is a perfect example of Airport Security acting like the state-sponsored religion it is: it is a religion because it is responding to people's emotions rather than to scientific facts. See Worshiping at the Altar of the Holy Metal Detector.)
The "War on Terror" concept has magnified Terrorist advertising ability a hundred-fold. We should start our rethinking of a response to 9-11 by rethinking the War on Terror concept. We need to replace the War on Terror concept with a concept that weakens Terrorist advertising value.
One key to diminishing terror is to enfranchise terrorists and their communities. If a community has a voice, it will not support terrorists. After we step back, we need to step forward with a world-wide Civil Rights campaign, similar to what the US experienced in the 1960's and 70's. If the people of the world have civil rights, they won't have terrorists. (for more on this theme, check out my article Solving the War on Terror and the War on Drugs with "Enfranchisement".)
Those are my thoughts for the fifth anniversary of 9-11.
Update: This 26 Apr 13 WSJ The Numbers Guy article, Bill for a Bombing Can Be Hard to Tally by Carl Bialik, discusses the difficulty in putting a price tag on the damage done by terrorism. From the article, "Economists still haven't reached a consensus on the cost of the far-deadlier Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Questions such as whether to count the cost of the war in Afghanistan, the plunge in the stock market after the attacks and the post-9/11 fall in airline travel, have led to a broad range of estimates, from less than $100 billion to more than $2 trillion." (I go with the 2 trillion) The World Trade Center itself was insured for 3 billion. These cost estimates show how this blunder grew to involve much, much more than two skyscrapers, four jet planes and thousands of people. The added cost (waste is also a good word) was self-inflicted because we as a community got afraid... very afraid, and because we ignored that fine proverb about vengance, "Revenge is a dish best served cold." "Blame Bush" if you like, but in those scary days he had well beyond a simple majority of Americans rooting for him.
This is why it's so important to be aware of blundering.