In the 1960s, you could always get a laugh by referring to the John Birch crusade against fluoridation. It was so obviously bogus. And yet, the bogus does live cheek by jowl, in America, with the deepest and darkest anxieties and realities. Fluoridation might not lead to a weak kneed surrender to communism, but the channelization and pollution of America’s streams and rivers, cheerfully commanding bipartisan assent from the social engineers who know what is good for us, was a sign of something seriously out of whack with the system. The Birchers were advocates for an even more extreme out of whackness, but sometimes you have to crystallize your anxieties by going to the far end of the masochistic spectrum.
The best horse laugh to come out of 9/11, an event that hasn’t exactly given rise to a lot of comedy, is in the idea circulating among some parts of the left – parts that have spent years, decades upping the rhetorical ante in denouncing the sundry crimes of Amerika and competing with declarations of fidelity to one Amerikan enemy or another – that 9/11 was an inside job. And so it is that the comfortable lefties take one look at the most successful guerilla act in recent times and immediately attribute it… to the CIA.
However, the bogus, here, sits next to a myth that both the left and right are very comfortable with. The myth is of America’s overwhelming military power. The myth simply ignores the fact that most instances of the extended expression of American military power in the last fifty years have blown up in America’s face.
To illustrate what this means re 9/11, let me tell relate a heartwarming fable.
Say you have a fly, a pesky stinging fly, buzzing around your room.
For the sake of the fable, let’s say you have two instruments to deal with the fly.
One of those instruments is an old flyswatter. It consists of a perforated rubber pad mounted on a rickety wire handle.
The other of these instruments consists of an expensive hammer. Not a hammer with a wooden shaft, either – one with a nice metal, graphite core shaft.
Now, the hammer could truly pound the rickety wire handle of the fly swatter into an unuseable mass. The hammer is mightier than the fly swatter. The fly swatter, too, has a tendency to grossly palp the fly into jelly, whereas the image, at least, of the fly under the hammer is that the jelly would be atomized. Oh, that will hurt the fly!
However, in the face of that pesky stinging fly, it is a bad idea to use the hammer. The reason is this. You will punch holes in the wall. You will break plates and glass. You will break the window. And you might, in some swing, bring the hammer into contact with your leg, which will definitely make you forget about the fly.
Al Qaeda – I’m talking here of the military end, not the popular video subsidiary that has just put out its groovy “Convert to Islam” vid for the American party market – has been rather brilliant. For instance, take the fact that the 20 hijackers came to America to learn how to fly airliners. Now, it is undoubtedly true that there are other places in the world to learn the pilot’s trade, or what they had to know of the pilot’s trade. But to boldly emplace the 20 who are going to attack the U.S. in the U.S. was a small piece of genius. It was the genius of being able to think like the fly. Of course, genius is nothing without luck, and it appears that Al Qaeda was very lucky to get Atta. The man seemed to understand how to organize a project. In fact, from what we know about the project, he operated like most software companies operate when getting guys together for a project – allowing a little social time in which everybody could relax with each other in Vegas, for instance. After the event, much time was spent debating whether Atta was a coward or not. This was a great debate, insofar as it shifted the terms to an emotional plane we can all understand – much like the terms in which we can all take sides on whether Brad should have left Jen or not. Little time or effort was spared for looking at how well Atta organized his group. To do that would make us, well, uncomfortable with our assumption that hammers are all purpose tools, and the bigger the hammer, the more flies you kill.
Similarly, little attention was paid to the evidence that came out at the 9/11 hearings about the military response to the hijacked planes. The day of the attack, we had what Karl Weick has called a collapse of sensemaking. This kind of thing is endemic to disasters involving rapid response organizations – firefighters, jet fighter pilots, nuclear power plant technicians. As Weick has shown, it is not so much from misapplying the rules, or even using the wrong rules, but the collapse in the faith in rules per se that occurs in the heart of the panic. Our air force has, since 1947, been trained to respond immediately to attack – but when the attack finally came, the picture was of scrambled orders and jetfighters heading off in a classic front to protect the U.S. from incoming. The exercises were never designed to protect the U.S. from its own airliners. Again, Al Qaeda’s strategy – to think like a fly – worked. Who sees flies enter a room? But of course, if you see a fly, your response might well be to close the door. That gives the fly its brief opportunity.
It should be said, in one way we are all alive because rapid response organizations are not fail-safe. In the fifties, that crazy fuck, Eisenhower, had a series of sortees mounted by SAC that penetrated Soviet air space and deliberately mimicked the profile of a first strike. The point was to see how rapidly the Soviets responded – and the lesson was that, just as in 1941, the Soviets were not great responders. Their strength was in holding on.
Now, about that fly swatter. John Kerry, in the nineties, wrote, or had written, a nifty little book about terrorism. In it, he makes the observation that terrorist groups are structured like mafia groups, and so are most effectively dealt with by law enforcement – a suggestion he furiously backpedaled from in 2004 (poor Kerry evidently shot the whole wad of his courage in 1971). Kerry was right then and he is right now. Al Qaeda is not the National Liberation Front. The NLF succeeded, as Francis Fitzgerald showed in The Fire in The Lake, because they depended on the Vietnamese villagers. This was something that didn’t compute to the Americans in Vietnam – they were so determined to see the NLF as a terrorist group, coercing cooperation by violence, that they didn’t listen to their informants, who explained that the NLF could not operate that way. They really needed the cooperation of the villagers, hence, they actually talked to them, asked them for advice, etc. When, in the late 60s, the Americans started sending in South Vietnamese cadre to operate on the NLF model, it never worked – as soon as the SV cadre would get to the villages, they would start acting impolite. They would march around like cocks of the walk. The NLF strategy worked not because the NLF recruited nice people – far from it – but because the NLF got the people to see that the NLF was operating from necessity. Maybe they wanted to shove around the village bosses, but they couldn’t afford to.
So, if one were going to grade a Q, you’d have to give them an A for strategy, and F for governance, and a B for home video manufacturing. As for the American faith in hammers – well, I remember shortly after Tora Bora, a friend of mine, a Bush supporter, told me with the utmost confidence that we would pick him up. He named several pieces of ultrafine spying equipment we had aloft. It was just a matter of getting our special forces in their ultrafast helicopters and giving them the OK. This idea was believed on the left too – how many scenarios about the October surprise in 2004 were about Bush casually reaching out the God like hand and grasping our pesky wabbit with the turban. It turned out the October surprise was how many Americans live in a bubble of complete illusion about the world. One fed by a press that can’t mention Osama Bin without giving him the Homeric epithet, on the run. On the run Osama. He’s been so on the run he must have a pretty good heart – and that is the kind of thing our bicycling Rebel in Chief can appreciate! It is funny how all these on the run folks keep running back. In the meantime, one does wonder if the strategy of the fly is exhausted. Myself, I think that depends on the quality of the middle managers. Besides, there really is no need to attack the U.S. here when the U.S. is making itself so available for attack elsewhere.
“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears
Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads
"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads