It has been five years since the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York with its horrible loss of life. With it, even more shockingly, perhaps, came the disappearance of what had become an essential part of the New York skyline. And what made it all even worse was that it seemed to be an intentional act of suicide terror, by an implacable foe, that had struck from far away.
The fact that the small band directly responsible were quickly identified by name, and had been lurking calmly in our midst before deliberately smashing themselves and the hijacked jet passengers they took with them into their various targets was so searing in part because we could just fathom, remotely, what it might feel like to plan your own destruction and that of so many others so carefully. Most of us knew we just could never do anything remotely like that. These must be some kind of malign supermen, almost as if they were the harbingers of an invasion from some other, more ferocious planet.
Al Qaeda is perfectly real, but it is also a figment of media who were quick to provide handy titles to the attack back them: “America’s New War”, “ A New Pearl Harbor” the TV channels quickly subtitled their coverage, so that we wouldn’t bother to hit the remote searching for Survivor, or a sit-com with a better laugh track. That happened far faster than President Bush could get his bearings. The networks’ news producers are pros, after all.
It was wonderful prelude though, to turning all the attention to Bush. As long as he took up the ready-made trope of war, and claimed we were now in a difficult, “long, twilight struggle” against implacable “evil,” he had a stranglehold on media and popular attention, especially from young people who had little idea that Pearl Harbor was just one sally of many by the spreading forces of Axis imperialism sixty years earlier.
To be sure, 9/11 was the worst terrorist attack ever, the most cunning and ingenious, and certainly the most destructive. By turning ordinary passenger jets into cruise missiles they added a new fright to the fear of flying. In fact, the old fears — that a plane would simply fall out of the air because it shouldn’t be up there in the first place — had by then given way to a blasé — but valid — sense that flying is utterly safe and routine. But worse was knocking down such huge and highly occupied buildings — buildings that also constituted a significant landmark, seen daily by millions, known and recognizable all over the world.
Of course, a little over six years earlier, a very different terrorist attack had taken down a landmark also well-known, at least in Oklahoma. As far as I know, Timothy McVeigh’s attack on the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City was the very worst terrorist assault in the US up until that time. But after it became clear that the perpetrator was a right-wing American, there was no sense that we were on a war footing — not even a civil war. It was a criminal matter, and the main criminals were quickly caught and tried. Then McVeigh committed suicide by executioner, refusing to continue with appeals to which he was entitled. He engendered little talk that we were up against implacable evil, or that “sleeper cells” of his clones were out there somewhere and had to be hunted down and rendered harmless or extirpated, because they did not even fear death but welcomed it.
I have written before that one probable reason the World Trade Center was targeted was its name. But it was not the Center of World Trade, by any means. If it had been called the “Port Authority Towers” or the “Back-Office Skyscraper,” either of which would have been more accurate, it might well still be standing. However, by all rights, the two towers should not have collapsed when hit by two jet planes. No reasonable structural engineer would have guessed they were so vulnerable, and if Mohammed Atta and his cohorts did, it was probably because they had but a feeble grasp of civil engineering. They “lucked out” in their fiendish way because of peculiarities of design and construction probably unique to these buildings and almost certainly not known or even knowable to them. A large part of the myth of puissance that has grown up around al-Qaeda is thus a huge accident. Al-Qaeda has been involved in some horrible acts before and since, but nothing at all comparable.
By now, as John Tierney, the New York Times columnist, pointed out the other day, we have good reason to believe that there were no sleeper cells, in the US or elsewhere. He cites Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller:
“Mueller’s conclusion is that there just aren’t that many terrorists out there with the zeal and the competence to attack the United States. In his forthcoming book, ‘Overblown,’ he argues that the risk of terrorism didn’t increase after Sept. 11 — if anything, it declined because of a backlash against Al Qaeda, making it a smaller and less capable threat than before. But the terrorism industry has been too busy hyping Sept. 11 and several other attacks to notice.” (See also Mueller’s own article “Six Rather Unusual Propositions about Terrorism.”)
I think Tierney and Mueller are quite right. But what is the “terrorism industry” and why is it so effective? It is those who draw attention and adulation by exaggerating the dangers to our society that seemingly stem from terrorism. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice are high on the list. So are many terrorism experts and foreign policy muck-a-mucks of either party plus academic experts aligned clearly with neither.
Why does it work so well? After all far more Americans die of preventable medical errors every year than died in 9/11, yet we have no comparable public outcry, no comparable effort to change a much more present and more corrigible danger. And there are also prophets of doom in connection with global warming who go much less heeded.
My guess is that terrorism and the terrorism industry both are so effective in drawing attention for several linked reasons. First is the drama of it all. Unlike someone dying of an infection due to a physician’s inadequate hand-washing before touching a wound, those injured or killed in 9/11 were in a state of intense fear, and actively trying whatever they could to save themselves. It remains a complex narrative, filled with compelling imagery— the actions on the planes, the hurtling attempts to rush for safety from the towers, the counterflow of firemen on their doomed upward mission, the long searches for missing loved ones, the sifting for months through the still-smoldering wreckage.
Then came the story of the terrorists themselves. The lazy, ignorant or harried doctor not washing is nothing like the purposefulness of the terrorists meticulously plotting and planning, moving to clandestine meetings on various continents, shifting money through secret channels, living as if ordinary people in various American cities and towns, while all the while intending to commit the heinous crime. Much as we may view the terrorists as alien monsters, they are monsters very much like the inner demons and outward fears that every child must cope with and carries — if unconsciously — into adulthood. Long before there were suicide bombers the metaphor of “exploding with rage” was commonplace.
Horror movie makers well know that effective sources of fear are the stock aliens from another planet, the center of the earth, or Hell, who disguise themselves as ordinary humans before hunting the rest of us down. We can easily pay attention to such horrors because they stem from the early workings of a psyche intent on staving off its dangerous feelings towards those such as parents it must depend on, as the psycho-analyst Melanie Klein argued extensively.
Once a baby gets its first set of teeth, this previously helpless creature suddenly can cause pain and inflict injury. At the same time it is capable of great rage and anger when it feels thwarted. Handling those feelings is helped by projecting them onto external monsters, but the feelings do not disappear from the psyche. When something like a terrorist or a mass murderer comes along, our inner alignment with that outré behavior adds to the fascination and fear. This is all the greater when the perpetrators are themselves from an alien culture, acting for purposes and motivations that are really quite obscure.
At the same time, even though the exact purpose of the terrorist actions, other than expressing ultimate rage, are not really clear or knowable, anyone who can sympathize with their feelings will look upon them with some degree of admiration. They become heroes to be emulated among a small subset of those who feel such kinship, whoever that might be. This is immensely aided by a two factors. One is their ability via video cams, satellite TV and now the Internet to spread their own images on the same channels in which their devastations are shown. Thus they gain a power that the lone mass murderer of the past cannot. The fact that a powerful country takes them as absurdly seriously as ours does only adds to their glory. Thus terrorists are a monster in so many ways the creation of the west and specifically America.
And we can uncreate them too, just by changing our focus. To do that, we will have to downgrade the terrorism industry.