January 31, 2007
9/11... Not Your Grandfather's Kind of Apocalypse!
More and more, Big Lizards seems to be zeroing in on the insanity of the big-box media. I don't mind; it's a topic that is critical, amusing -- and endlessly giving.
I am undeterred by the fact that a couple of bloggers I regularly read, Real Clear Politics and Patterico's Pontifications, have already posted on the infamous L.A. Times opinion piece that argues 9/11 wasn't so bad after all. As always, we have our own take... and we shall actually argue the case why global jihadism is indeed an "existential threat" to the United States; and how, if anything, we have underreacted -- not overreacted -- to that threat. Read on...
All the news sources cite some subset of the same three paragraphs from the Op-Ed piece by David Bell in the Los Angeles Times:
Has the American reaction to the attacks in fact been a massive overreaction? Is the widespread belief that 9/11 plunged us into one of the deadliest struggles of our time simply wrong? If we did overreact, why did we do so? Does history provide any insight?
Certainly, if we look at nothing but our enemies' objectives, it is hard to see any indication of an overreaction. The people who attacked us in 2001 are indeed hate-filled fanatics who would like nothing better than to destroy this country. But desire is not the same thing as capacity, and although Islamist extremists can certainly do huge amounts of harm around the world, it is quite different to suggest that they can threaten the existence of the United States.
Yet a great many Americans, particularly on the right, have failed to make this distinction. For them, the "Islamo-fascist" enemy has inherited not just Adolf Hitler's implacable hatreds but his capacity to destroy. The conservative author Norman Podhoretz has gone so far as to say that we are fighting World War IV (No. III being the Cold War).
In place of analysis, Bell uses a classic technique of demagoguery; the first time he introduces his thesis, he phrases it as a question:
Has the American reaction to the attacks in fact been a massive overreaction? Is the widespread belief that 9/11 plunged us into one of the deadliest struggles of our time simply wrong?
The second time, it has assumed more certainty, even though he has not actually argued the case:
[D]esire is not the same thing as capacity, and although Islamist extremists can certainly do huge amounts of harm around the world, it is quite different to suggest that they can threaten the existence of the United States.
Finally, the third and subsequent visitations return to the question form... but instead of questioning the accuracy of the original statement, its truth is treated as so obvious that it can be used as the standard by which to judge contrary opinion:
So why has there been such an overreaction? Unfortunately, the commentators who detect one have generally explained it in a tired, predictably ideological way: calling the United States a uniquely paranoid aggressor that always overreacts to provocation.
Here, the overreaction has magically pressed forward from possible to probable to certain, without ever visibly moving. Repeated assertion, each time a bit more emphatically, replaces the bothersome need actually to argue the case (and define the terms). I call this the Snark Fallacy: "What I tell you three times is true."
(Let's see how he likes it.)
Not to fall into Bell's own penchant for vagueness or "Snark"-iness, let's define our term right off -- what it means to say something is an "existential threat," in five easy pieces:
- The United States is not simply a geographic location on the map, nor does it comprise nothing but a given set of people.
- Thus, it's possible that a country might no longer be legitimately "the United States" even if it still retains that name and still has roughly the same population it had before.
I hope you already see where I'm going with this: Bell's claim that global jihadism cannot destroy the United States is based entirely on the idea that the terrorists cannot kill all 300,000,000 of us... as if that were the sum total measure of a country's existence. Just look at his first paragraph, which I haven't seen quoted anywhere:
Imagine that on 9/11, six hours after the assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon, terrorists had carried out a second wave of attacks on the United States, taking an additional 3,000 lives. Imagine that six hours after that, there had been yet another wave. Now imagine that the attacks had continued, every six hours, for another four years, until nearly 20 million Americans were dead. This is roughly what the Soviet Union suffered during World War II, and contemplating these numbers may help put in perspective what the United States has so far experienced during the war against terrorism.
There is no question that throughout Bell's piece, he unconsciously (or covertly) defines an existential threat as a threat to wipe out the entire population of the United States; if a mere 20 million people are killed, he argues, that isn't existential... after all, the Soviet Union lost that many, yet continued being the Soviet Union.
It's true that such a loss of life did not transform the Soviets from a constitutional republic to a Communist dictatorship; but that's only because they were already a Communist dictatorship even before the war. WWII likewise did not destroy England or France, because they are both "linguistic" nations: tribally defined, where the "tribes" are intimately correlated to language. No other country speaks English or French except those that were once colonies of England or France... and that includes us. (Under the later Czars, the official language of the Russian court was French; but this was not the language of the Russian people.)
Here is another instance from Bell:
Even if one counts our dead in Iraq and Afghanistan as casualties of the war against terrorism, which brings us to about 6,500, we should remember that roughly the same number of Americans die every two months in automobile accidents.
Again, the distinction should be clear (even to a "professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and a contributing editor for the New Republic"): accidents, no matter how deadly, do not fundamentally alter the United States. We may demand seatbelt laws or better enforcement of drunk-driving laws; but nobody demands that cars be abolished and people be restricted to their homes.
Our response to traffic accidents doesn't endanger what is unique about America; but the response that citizens would demand to a series of increasingly horrific terrorist attacks well might.
England would still be England, even if it were a Nazi dictatorship. Heck, France remained France, even though Vichy France was a Nazi dictatorship. But this is irrelevant to the question of whether global jihadism can destroy America. We are simultaneously more robust as a culture and more vulnerable to losing our way than a typical country... which the next two steps in my definition of "existential threat" will make clear, I hope:
- Unlike language-based or tribe-based countries (France, Mexico, Japan), the United States is unique: it was the first country founded on an ideal, liberty, and a creed, government by the consent of the governed -- which together constitutes the core of the Constitution (all else is dicta).
- If this country were ever to alter or abolish either of those two critical elements, directly or by proxy, it would no longer be the United States of America -- no matter what it called itself, no matter how many citizens it still had.
Finally, we arrive at the definition:
- A threat to the United States is "existential" if, unchecked, it's likely to result in a change to our nation's core fundamentals so drastic, that what remains can no longer be called "the United States of America" as we know it today.
With this definition in mind, let's return to Bell's own example from his opening paragraph. Let's suppose that 9/11 were followed, every six hours, by a similar successful attack on the United States.
How many days would it be before the president declared martial law?
How long before we simply started rounding up all Moslems and all persons of Arabic descent? How long until we had concentration camps (a "super-Manzanar"), a Group Areas Act, surveillance of everyone at all times approaching that of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the suspension ("for the duration of hostilities") of habeas corpus?
The citizenry would demand it. The first duty of any government, before all others, is to safeguard its citizens from deadly peril. When a government fails of that primary duty, the mass of its citizens demands immediate, often ill-considered changes, hoping to restore that security. When people are afraid to go outside for fear of being killed, questions about liberty, fairness, decency, and justice pale into insignificance: safety overrides everything else.
(Benjamin Franklin famously remarked that "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." In this case, the devil is in the qualifiers: essential and temporary. When the liberty is not essential or the safety is not merely temporary, all bets are off.)
Under the absurdist Bell Scenario, America would probably cease being America within just a few days. Americans would not stand for such a staggering onslaught of murderous assault; they would demand it be stopped by any means necessary.
Now, there are loons who claim we already have everything listed above: they claim that Guantánamo Bay is already a "concentration camp," that we already have "surveillance of everyone," and that we're just plucking up Arabs and Moslems left and right and imprisoning them without a trial for no reason. But this is moonbattery raised to the level of Lyndon LaRouche, who famously called Queen Elizabeth the world's biggest "drug dealer."
We do, along with every other govenrment, engage in a certain amount of deprivation of liberty (though we're more sensitive to it than anyone else). We did have Manzanar during WWII; we do have some degree of surveillance; and Abraham Lincoln did, without question, suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War.
We also have some level of restriction on "government by the consent of the governed." Members of Congress have too high a rate of reelection, and they often listen to lobbyists more than ordinary folks, enacting earmarks for the rich and powerful.
But our divergence from the absolute is both necessary (to some extent) and trivial. These characteristics are not binary operations; liberty is not like a traditional lightswitch, where it's either all the way on or all the way off. It's more like a dimmer switch: we have at all times a range of liberty, as does everyone else. But we prefer our liberty to be set very much brighter than other countries; while Bell's example of the Soviet Union already had its liberty switch set so dim, it was almost indistinguishable from darkness (hence the title of one of the greatest anti-Communist books written by an ex-Communist (the category has hundreds of examples): Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler).
So long as such depredations against our ideal and our creed are carried out with a very light touch, so that liberty and self-governance burn very brightly, America is still America. It may be a horror for those caught in the shadows of darkness such dimming inevitably causes: blacks trapped first by slavery, then by Jim Crow had neither liberty nor self-governance; and for them at that time, "America" was less American than it is now; we rightly rose up against such racism and did our best to abolish it -- or at least make it terribly costly.
But the very fact that such a phrase, "America was less American," is possible shows our uniqueness. After all, nobody said that Russia under Josef Stalin was any less "Russian" than it was under the Czars, or under Alexander Fyodorovich Kerensky, or under Boris Yeltsin. Russia is Russia, no matter how free or tyrannical it is, because it's defined geographically and tribally (in the case of the Soviet Union -- and even Russia alone -- the tribal definition is a defined collection of tribes, organized into linguistic subgroups).
France remained France, even when it was run by a puppet government that took its orders from Adolf Hitler in Berlin. But America would not be America if we became a full dictatorship; any more than Coke would still be Coke if you filled all the cans with tomato juice instead.
So the question is now this: does the threat of global jihadism rise to a level where, if unchallenged in its early phase, it threatens to change the very nature of the United States? I argue that indeed it does... and is every bit as dangerous to us as were Naziism and Communism.
Global jihadism differs from earlier ideologically based violence in three ways:
- Irrationality: We see no rational connection between the stated jihadist goals and the targets of violence; jihadists seem to kill merely for the joy of killing, as if committing human sacrifice to appease "a dark and a vengeful god;"
- Martyrdom: Many jihadis embrace death so eagerly that it's easy to believe them when they say, "the West loves life, but we love death." People who initiate an attack hoping to die cannot be stopped by any means short of killing them or physically wrestling them to the ground and hog-tying them: they cannot be threatened by arrest, capture, or the threat of death or injury, techniques that worked on Nazis and Communists alike, on both micro ("stop or I'll shoot") and macro (Mutual Assured Destruction) levels. Jihadis, by contrast, are like Terminators;
- Apocalyptic vision: Rather than mere conquest, many jihadists -- especially the Shiite "Twelvers" inspired by Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- want to bring about the literal End of Days, the final war of all against all... Armageddon, Ragnarok, call it what you will; their only evident goal is the complete destruction of the world, so that Allah can rule through the Mahdi.
Thus, anyone can be a target of jihadis at any time; the attacks needn't follow any rational plan or strategy; and "halt or I'll shoot" produces only "Allahu akbar!" in response, as the jihadi presses the button and blows up himself and ten other people. The Japanese at the end of WWII had a small number of kamikazes who launched suicidal airplane attacks against Allied ships; jihadis seem to deploy almost nothing but kamikazes!
This renders impotent most of the normal, WWII-style defenses against jihadis (such defenses may work well against state supporters of terrorism, however). As these are the only defenses most Americans know, they are far more frightened of global jihadism than they were of the Nazis, the imperial Japanese, or the Communist bloc: as big and scary as these threats were, we fundamentally understood what we needed to do to overcome them.
But the war against global jihadism is fought in the shadows of back alleys off Haifa Street, across the internet to interdict fundraising and terrorist organizations, and in corporate and financial boardrooms from Switzerland to the Cayman Islands to small banks in Africa and Central Asia.
Our weapons are not just armies and air power, as we have used for the last few decades; but also tiny, 5-25 man units spread across scores of countries around the globe, trying, in between killing bad guys, to teach the fundamentals of civilization to people not much advanced from the days of Mohammed himself... or for that matter, the days of Ogg the Troglodyte, 10,000 years ago. (See Imperial Grunts, by Robert Kaplan.)
Most people really don't understand how to fight this kind of war, against this kind of enemy. Uncertainty and doubt lead inevitably to fear; and fear can lead to irrational responses (such as the suggestion that we "negotiate" with Iran, our greatest, bitterest, most relentless, and most irrational enemy in the Middle East, how best to stabilize the Middle East along American-policy lines).
Under such a terrorist pounding as Baghdad is taking, we would be in grave danger of an irrational response that would change America's character... if we do not undertake the thoroughly rational responses in the war against global jihadism that President Bush and his defenders advocate -- and probably the even more drastic, yet still rational responses proposed by others: Arthur Herman, Mark Steyn, Thomas P.M. Barnett, and so forth.
If I am correctly evaluating this threat as one that, left unchecked, could lead to such a wholesale change in America that most of us would not longer call it "the United States of America" -- note I do not simply assume that I am correct, merely because I have repeated it often enough to hypnotize myself -- if I'm right, then far from overreacting to the threat of global jihadism, we have more than likely under-reacted.
Not all reaction must be warfare, though that will be an essential tool throughout this period (assuming I haven't gone totally around the rocker). But we have underreacted by not treating the war against global jihadism as a total war, one that requires for victory the resources of every component of our society and the West: military, political, economic, artistic, and especially social. We desperately need:
- Soldiers to kill jihadis;
- Statesmen to support our soldiers -- but also to construct modern nations in the "Non-Integrating Gap," where there are now only failed states and tyrannical regimes;
- Financial geniuses to find ways to defund the global jihad -- but also to funnel money to the Gap and teach the people there to use such revenue streams rationally, to privilege civilized behavior and punish primitive thinking;
- Books, paintings, sculptures, music, and especially movies and television shows that accurately portray global jihadism, without sugar-coating, without an anti-American, anti-Western gloss, and without tendentious partisan mudslinging; we need ciizens who understand what we're up against -- but also understand that we're neither helpless nor destined to be defeated;
And we need a social understanding that the long-term solution is to civilize the rest of the world... starting with civilizing ourselves and our country: assimilating immigrants into the American culture (or Western culture, for other countries' immigrants); unabashedly exporting American "Borg" culture to the rest of the world; and dumping the culturally suicidal (and cement-headed) idea of "cultural relativism." Some cultures are perfectly vile, and they should be expunged from face of the Earth.
"Multiculturalism" is fine, so long as it's understood to be restricted to native cuisine, native music, and native costume (the latter only on special dress-up days)... trivial "flavorings" to the greater culture of Western liberal democracy -- liberty, government by the consent of the governed, and Capitalism. Nothing else works, by any rational definition of "works."
If we don't have each and every one of these elements in play, we will lose this war. But I believe we will have them all in play... eventually; American Borg culture is the least suicidal culture on the planet. The only question is how long we wait in denial before giving in to reality... and how much pain we must suffer in the meanwhile.
David Bell does not agree. All right; it's still a free country -- for now. I suspect that reality will eventually rear up and bite us in the fundamentals, though that's just my opinion... and I'm not even a professor of history at Johns Hopkins or anywhere else.
Yet certainly, Bell's analysis was superficial at best: the gravest threat is not that jihadis will individually kill each one of us by car bombs and Galleria shootings... it's that they will inflict so much random, senseless damage that we jettison our own, extraordinarily successful culture in a misguided attempt to "fight irrationality with more irrationality."
I don't want that to happen. So for God's sake, let's fight their irrationality with our total war -- of rational responses to global jihadism, both destructive and constructive: let's kill the jihadis, destroy their organizations, rebuild the Gap states, and transform ourselves into the sort of culture warriors who will stand up and defend our culture without quibbling.
That is victory.
Hatched by Dafydd on this day, January 31, 2007, at the time of 8:38 PM
TrackBack URL for this hissing: http://biglizards.net/mt3.36/earendiltrack.cgi/1744
The following hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist
Had to sign back in...just dumped Hughes.net for a dialup connection. The dialup is much faster and cheaper at $6.95 this month, and Hughes is sending me $45+ back for this pay period...i'll buy a new Koran with the savings.
America overreacted on December 7, 1941 and on September 11, 2001...trust Allah on that.
The following hissed in response by: Terrye
I live in one of those places where it is dial up or satellite too. so far I am hinging wiht dial up and hoping for broadband.
And today people would say we overreacted to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After all, look at a map...look at Japan and the United States..what were they thinking?
The problem is when dealing with an irrational enemy is really does not matter if they can kill us all, in fact I pity the occupiers that try to take and hold this country...the point is the havoc they can wreak in the process of trying.
When one looks at our history I suppose it could be said we always overreacted. After all, was King George really a tyrant? Was the war of 1812 really necessary? Was the war with Mexico really just? Did we have to do the whole Civil War thing? Did Lincoln overreact when he failed to turn the other cheek and just let the South turn into Southern Africa? And could the Kaiser really have come to our shores in WW1? And Adolf Hitler could not make it across the English Channel much less the Atlantic Ocean. And what exactly did we have to do with the Korean Peninsula or Viet Nam? I mean who but America dies for an ideal?
The above hissed in response by: Terrye at February 1, 2007 2:42 AM
The following hissed in response by: charlotte
Terrific post for applying sound logic to Bell’s illogic, for defining the US as more than raw numbers of people with some kind of functioning government, for urging a society-wide defense of our country, and, finally, for not apologizing for who we are. Bell and other weak men would rather switch (or allow us to be diminished) than fight; they’d rather pen strained arguments that there really aren’t serious threats with which we have to deal (jihadism, Iranian nukes, oil threats, etc.) or that we’re unworthy of or lessened by vigorous self-defense to justify their own lack of fortitude and congenital pacifism in the face of aggression.
So, no thank you, Bell. I’m not willing to sacrifice myself, loved ones or any other Americans to your “acceptable losses” plan of passivity. While automobile accidents are tragic and we do what we can to prevent them, the intent to mass murder and to bring down our way of life is demonic and not to do everything in our power to stop it is almost more monstrous. Hard left or right isolationism is just naïve head-in-the-sand or cynical thinking that will result in more evil to come. There is obvious need to forcibly address certain dysfunctionality and treachery in “far-off” places that clearly are not so distant, anymore, when their warped ideologues fly our own jetliners into our buildings.
While we have many hard and soft weapons in our arsenal to use in combatting these threats, too many Americans are unwilling to pick up their arms of choice and fight for us, preferring to pretend there’s no problem other than semantics and false perception. Shame about Bell and many other liberal-leftist pundits and academics, but at least writers like Dafydd wield their words and convictions on behalf of this country. Good information and persuasion are especially needed just now, when we have men and women of the US military sent in harm’s way to protect us and American interests, and when the alternative to the long fight is a Union under seige and our exceptionalism lost.
The following hissed in response by: Bill Faith
Excerpted and linked. I'd been watching and waiting for someone to do a good takedown on that fool. Thanks.
The above hissed in response by: Bill Faith at February 1, 2007 12:45 PM
The following hissed in response by: Big D
Simply brilliant. This type of article is why I keep coming back.
"How long we wait in denial before giving in to reality... and how much pain we must suffer in the meanwhile?" Based on history we will wait until the last possible moment, suffer the greatest amount of pain, be on the brink of anniliation, before we start firing on all cylinders. It is the American way.
This is a good thing by the way. It is what keeps us out of trouble, most of the time.
Sometimes I hear people bemoan the lack of world knowledge most Americans have. But there is a reason for this. We don't care about the rest of the world. We have a culture and society that is happy with itself, that does not fret over the success or failures of others.
If we did care, the world would shudder at our power. The Jihadis should fear making a significant percentage of American people understand and care about them and their issues.
The following hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr
Simply brilliant. Thank you.
I find one weakness in the presentation, though, which makes it much harder for me to recommend your presentation to someone who doesn't already believe the main point.
You (correctly) strongly contrast our nation to other, more ethnic nations in arguing that because we are not defined by genealogy, but rather by ideas. But I don't see that those other nations have any more or less right to defend themselves, nor any right or obligation to use different means, simply by cause of the nation being more or less ethnically defined.
So, if you believe that England, Ireland, Germany, or France has a right to defend themselves against terrorist attacks (and I believe you DO), you must believe it for reasons OTHER than what you've explained above. Do those reasons which apply to those other nations *not* apply to the United States? If they do, then why does your argument refer exclusively to this thing in which the US differs from them?
This is not a weakness in your logic; properly viewed, it's a strength, since you're arguing that the US has a right based on the actual properties of the US. But it's a weakness in your presentation, because in the process of arguing you accidentally leave an implication that other countries lack this right. If you would explicitly recognize that right, and clearly explain that your argument only adds strength to a right that the US has anyway, I think that your argument could become stronger, and certainly an excuse for dissent would be removed.
(Such dissent would simply use the lack of recognition for other nations as an excuse to dismiss the entire argument -- not fully logical, but not unreasonable, since it's clear that your current explanation fails to explain most of the nations in the world.)
But anyhow -- well done.
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