The Long View 2002-05-21: The Office of Evil

The Oatmeal clearly agrees with JohnOne notable disagreement of mine with John was the competence of the terrorists who struck the United States on 9/11. I'm sure lots of people, especially at the time, saw bin Laden as a terrorist mastermind, but in retrospect it seems like he got lucky. It is probably the kind of books I read, but a real mastermind would have followed up with something else a little sooner. There certainly were some foiled plots that made it into the news after 9-11, but most of the subsequent attacks were in other countries, such as the London subway attacks, the Beslan school hostage crisis and the Bali nightclub bombing.

It is at least conceivable that the vast new powers given to the American intelligence agencies after 9/11 have kept us relatively safe, but I'm not terribly impressed by this idea. The rate and scale of pre- and post-9/11 terrorist activity seems about the same in the wider world. And most of that activity happens in Third-world shitholes, just like it always has.

The Office of Evil

Thomas Friedman suggested in the New York Times of May 19 that we could use an office like this. The column in question, "A Failure to Imagine," was actually a backhanded exoneration of the Bush Administration for failing to take more radical action last summer, when there was an uptick in information from intelligence sources suggesting that an major attack from Al Qaeda might be impending. He rightly points out that the sort of imagination needed to consider suicide attacks seriously is rare in America. He was probably kidding when he said that a special bureau might be created to cultivate malice at that level, so we are not blindsided again. Most of Friedman's piece, however, is devoted to bemoaning the Administration's "failure to imagine good," meaning in this case the mobilization of youth for progressive causes and the institution of a post-fossil-fuel industrial revolution.

Thomas Friedman is not the stupidest man who ever lived, but he does not seem to grasp how far from "over" the 911 era is. He has company, of course. The Democrats last week jumped on some quite minor disclosures of internal intelligence documents from just before the attacks to go into full Watergate mode. "What did he know and when did he know it?" they demanded to know, reacting to word that the president received a rather anodyne analysis last August that suggested some sort of attack might be in the offing, perhaps involving airline hijackings. The answer to the question, of course, is "not enough" and "too late," for which the Administration is indeed to some degree at fault. Ironically, the partisan way in which the question was raised seems to have done those who raised it more harm than good. In any case, those who look on 911 as a lost opportunity of some sort can take heart. Similar opportunities may come along any time now that they could find just as useful, assuming they survive the attacks.

One need not be altogether cynical to surmise that the latest statements coming from the Administration about new threats for the near future are colored by the desire to change the subject from the Democrats' implied accusations of negligence. However, there is no reason to think that the new threats themselves are imaginary: stories about terrorists having recently been brought to the US in cargo ships, for instance, appeared before last week's disclosures. So did the reports that shopping malls could be in particular danger. Actually, cynicism might be in order if you thought that the president's partisan opponents knew about the new dangers. Did they take care to get their accusations on record before possible new attacks? That way, they could position themselves for this fall's Congressional election, when they might raise questions about the Administration's competence. But no, that way madness lies.

We do seem to be moving into a new situation. Al Qaeda has a track record of launching simultaneous attacks against large, geographically distant, landmark structures. These attacks are made with novel tactics determined by the nature of each target, at intervals of from several months to over a year. The new pattern of terrorism in the Middle East, however, as developed in the intifada against Israel, involves numerous attacks at short intervals. They follow one or two patterns, and they are intended to create casualties. It is reasonable to expect that a synthesis of these methods will be deployed in the United States, by an alliance of hitherto only loosely connected groups. Places of mass public accommodations have been mentioned as possible targets. So have such structures as high-rise apartment buildings, where preparations might be made over time. For what little it's worth, I doubt that landmarks or the transportation systems are very attractive targets anymore. Then again, that's what people said about the airlines until last September.

Public reaction to new attacks could differ significantly from last year's. For instance, it will be clear that government has only limited ability to protect the people from attack, even when government is paying attention. The Administration would be criticized, not for over reacting in terms of new security measures, but for having done too little. Additionally, depending on where the attacks take place, they could disabuse some parts of the country of the impression that the 911 war is primarily a concern of the Northeast.

We might even get a bit of a social revolution, though maybe not the one Thomas Friedman was thinking of. Nicholas Kristof, another New York Times columnist, has a piece today entitled "Following God Abroad." It's a glowing report on the new political engagement of American evangelicals, who have been energized by 911 and by the threat to Israel. Kristof praises their practical foreign assistance projects and keen interest in the defense of religious liberty internationally. As evangelists, they are, naturally, evangelizing, and not least in NGO Land:


"The evangelical movement encompasses one-quarter of Americans and is growing quickly. One measure of its increasing influence is that a newsstand in the United Nations has carried the Left Behind series of religious novels by [Jerry Jenkins and] Tim LaHaye. These books, which have sold 50 million copies so far, describe the battles that precede the Second Coming, and there is indeed a United Nations connection: In the novels, the Antichrist is the secretary general."

Speaking of Left behind, I finally got around to seeing the movie version, by the Lalonde brothers of Cloud Ten Productions. The authors were displeased with the quality of the film, and it does in fact seem to be the kind of thing that HBO produces for broadcast during the summer, when few people are likely to watch.

One thing that struck me about the film was the number of pets. After the Rapture, the world was filled with despondent dogs sitting by the empty clothes of their departed masters. While I recognize that this idea would be theologically awkward, I could not help but think how much more affecting those scenes would have been had there been empty collars and dropped leashes lying next to those abandoned clothes.

The cats would have been left behind for the Tribulation, however. They would have worn little red capes and sprung about in evil glee, knowing that their hour had come.

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