In his first interview after leaving office, former Vice President Dick Cheney said that Obama’s policies “raise the risk” of a U.S. terror attack. His argument goes back to an old dilemma: should terrorism be considered a military problem, as the Bush administration treated it, or should it be a law enforcement issue, as the current administration is inclined to do.
We did not have any major terrorist attacks after 9/11 and Mr. Cheney takes credit for that. I would object. The fact that we did not have any major terrorist act since September 11 has nothing to do with the war on terror. Quite the opposite: the Muslim masses perceived the war on terror as an expansion of American imperialism. This helped radical Islam gain popularity, broadening the breeding ground for a new generation of potential terrorists. As a result, the actual terrorist threat increased, as we have more young indoctrinated people willing to become terrorists.
The big screw-up
A few days before September 11, 2001, I was visiting New York and drove by the World Trade Center towers. During a casual conversation with family, we talked about the attack in 1993 and concluded that terrorists would probably try one more time to accomplish what they had failed to do. I present this personal experience as one more argument for the opinion that September 11 could only happen due chiefly to the catastrophic negligence of government agencies responsible for the security of the nation.
It was obvious that the World Trade Center was a terrorist target, as well as other symbols of American power like the White House and Pentagon. It was known that terrorists are capable of hijacking a plane. It was known that they use suicidal assassins. Just by connecting these dots, one could come up with the idea of using a plane as a missile. Only the terrorists did. Even more significantly, in a bureaucratic tangle someone missed the warnings that a few pilot trainees seemed not much concerned about learning how to land. I am bringing these known facts up (again) to make the point that screw-ups of this magnitude do not happen often. Especially, after the painful lesson of 9/11, agencies such as the CIA or FBI are simply doing better what they are supposed to do. As a result, it is very unlikely that they will fail so catastrophically again. At least, as long as the people who witnessed the screw-up that led to 9/11 are still working there.
Surprise works only once
The surprise factor was an essential part of the success of the attacks on September 11. Until that morning, we all knew and anticipated that a hijacked plane would eventually land somewhere, and then Special Forces would take control of the situation. On September 11, the plane hijackings were scheduled minutes apart to take full advantage of that surprise factor. It is meaningful to note that by the time the delayed flight 93 was hijacked, the passengers were informed about the events in New York. From the few details we know, we can infer that the passengers tried to fight with the terrorists, and as a result, blocked this plane from being used as a missile.
In other words, the surprise factor wore itself out by the late morning of September 11, 2001. By that time, the rules of engagement had changed irreversibly. Since then, any attempt of hijacking a plane would be met with the active resistance of everybody onboard. Seeing themselves destined to die but still alive, the people on board, guided by basic biological instincts, will fight desperately for the slightest chance to survive, or at least prevent the plane from being turned into a weapon. Old ladies will point their hairspray into the terrorists’ eyes, salespersons will use their sharp pencils as daggers, wine connoisseurs will break wine bottles to convert them into razors, and computer geeks will use their laptops as blunt objects to hit with. Since the late morning of September 11 of 2001, the chances that terrorists can use a passenger airplane as a missile are practically nonexistent. In other words, the attack on September 11 was a one-time stunt.
Wearing the terrorists’ shoes
In the public discussion after September 11, very little attention was put into the understanding of the motivations of the masterminds behind this attack, the perpetrators, and sympathizers among Muslims worldwide.
In today’s Islam, there is no separation of state and religion. With the understanding that this is a far-reaching simplification, we might say that in their political history they are where Western Europe was in Medieval times: plagued by religious wars. In pre-industrial societies, economic changes were slow and the hierarchies of authority were clearly defined, and sanctioned by religion. This system falls apart when a traditional society opens to the modern world, as the people’s ability to get rich quickly outside of religiously sanctioned tradition turns the existing hierarchy upside down. The role of religion is diminishing. The Catholic Church did not give up its political power easily in Medieval Europe. Similarly, we should not expect that potent Muslim clerics will give up their political power easily. Their political position is threatened in every Muslim society that opens to the modern world. Changes are coming faster than imams can adjust to them; therefore, they condemn modern civilization and glorify the virtues of old traditions. Probably, meaningful changes will not occur until the boys that play video games today will grow up and become imams themselves. Of course, this will only happen under the condition that instead of sitting in a madrasah today, these boys are sitting in front of computers. This was not the approach of the Bush-Cheney administration. Instead of fighting terrorism by using Microsoft and the like, they used guns, tanks, and Halliburton.
Some within the elites of Islam feel threatened by the ongoing changes of civilization. As they cannot stop the world from changing, they try to block changes within their area of influence. They use terror to send a message of fear to people perceived as embodying the evils of the modern world. The message is mixed. On one hand it is, “stay away from us; let us live the way we want”, and on the other end it is, “feel our pain; do not disrespect us just because we are poor”. The inconsistency of these messages is obvious, as only by accepting changes brought by industrialization, and accepting that those changes will transform the traditions of their societies, people there can improve their quality of life.
Consequently, the most efficient way of fighting terror is by calm and persistent explanation that it is not about American power, it is not about American ideology, and it is not about Wall Street or Hollywood. It is about cars, airplanes, computers, and the internet. Muslim societies need to find their own formula for incorporation of modern technologies. If they believe that they can do so better than Western countries, we wish them the best and are eager to learn from them. Obviously, this approach requires the understanding that it may take years to see meaningful results. Using military power gives an illusion that we could win the War on Terror within 5 weeks. The reality is that after six years in Iraq, we are barely keeping ourselves from losing.
If they wanted to do it, they would have done it already
After passing a strict security check at the airport, one can buy a bottle of vodka, hit it at something hard, and obtain a sharp weapon much more dangerous that those confiscated at the gates. Once, when entering the screening area at an airport, I realized that I had with me my Swiss army pocketknife. I just put it in the middle of the basket, next to a cellular phone, shoes, and a belt. It was clearly visible, but went undetected through two screening machines. At least five TSA agents were monitoring my actions at the time. At the other end of the conveyer belt, I asked one of them if I was cleared to go. He gave me the OK, and I put my pocketknife in my pocket and boarded a plane. The conclusion I am making from these observations is that if some terrorists would want to hijack a plane, they would be able to circumvent all these sophisticated security measures.
From the perspective of the people who masterminded the September 11 attack, it was the ultimate act of terrorism, almost perfectly executed. On the other hand, besides some emotional satisfaction from the overreaction of the U.S. Government, they gained nothing. An escalation of the strength of terror acts is one of the concepts behind using terror to obtain political goals. In this sense the success of the attack on September 11 is its defeat, as it is hard to imagine and even harder to execute an attack that would overshadow that one. In other words, attacks of a smaller scale would be perceived as a sign of weakness. This factor, plus the permanent pressure of the intelligence work of government security agencies, makes it unlikely that a major terrorist attack could happen again.
That does not mean that we are safe. With the anti-American sentiments propagated by certain radial Islam formations, we might expect that some ambitious young people will follow in the footsteps of Osama bin Laden. In particular, isolated terrorist acts, like the one in London in 2005, are very hard to detect. A very few individuals, without any previous record and acting independently, produced explosives from commonly used substances and detonated them in public spaces. It is very hard for police to prevent incidents of this kind. We have to be prepared that events of this kind might happen here as well.
We lost the war on terror merely by declaring it
We should look back at our response to the attack on September 11. Despite all the shock that the nation experienced on that day, the next day most Americans went to work as usual: stores were open, cars were assembled, homes were built, and fields were harvested. America did not change. After a few days of interruption, planes started flying again. The victims’ families and organizations that were hit the most needed some extra time to heal and rebound. Millions of individuals around the world, including Muslims, felt compassion for suffering Americans. In that sense, even terrorist sympathizers – after the original excitement – could see that this attack was a failure.
The official government response was by declaring a war on terror. Numerous security measures, mostly at the airports, changed the way Americans conduct their everyday business. The masterminds behind the September 11 attack and their supporters can see this as their success, as this validates the attack – they forced Americans to change the way we conduct our daily affairs. The eagerness of the U.S. government in taking military actions in countries suspected of supporting terrorism gave our enemies easy arguments to sway the opinion of the masses against the USA. The only practical result of the War on Terror was in elevating a bunch of criminals hiding somewhere in the mountains in Afghanistan (or who knows where) to the status of a major enemy of the most powerful nation on Earth. Could bin Laden ask for more?
Fighting terror was granted the status of major foreign policy objective. This elevated the importance of the Islamic extremists and granted nobility to their leaders. The people behind the September 11 attacks are just criminals, and as such should be dealt with by law enforcement. Foreign policy should be focused on removing barriers so more individuals and societies around the world can contribute to the development of our mutual civilization and enjoy the benefits of it as much as we do.
The government reaction to 9/11 could have been taken from a classic Western: shoot first, check facts later. This is how the war in Iraq started. This war helped Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win a presidential election in Iran, reversing its liberalization. Furthermore, compared to other Arab countries, Iraq under Saddam was a relatively secular nation. We had a chance to apply political pressure to force Saddam out and then help Iraq, building on its secular traditions. We had a chance to turn a major Arab country into a friendly nation, where people would be throwing flowers at the feet of the American President, not shoes at his head. When Mr. Cheney says that the Bush administration obtained 90% their goals in Iraq, it means that they were 90% successful in avoiding a complete defeat, at the cost of about 4500 American lives and about $650 billion. Not to mention the Iraqi casualties of the war: at least 100,000 deaths, but maybe as many as 1 million according to some sources.
After all, they are people too. It appears that the current administration, in fighting terrorism, will put much more stress on using their brains before using Halliburton. Mr. Cheney does not like that.
PS. Please see my video made in 2007.
A version of this text was published by Huffington Post