I wrote this article on June 23, 2006 in response to the capture of seven terrorists planning to blow up the Sears tower and a federal building in Florida.
We are a country whose ideals and ideology are based in freedom, so of course we have a few nut cases out there who are “free” to hate their own country, to wish to destroy its government or even its people, and who take advantage of the freedoms to plot and carry out terror attacks. The Unabomber was an interesting case, this super intelligent yet apparently paranoid with some psychosis or other man mailing bombs to people for 18 years and writing his very own rambling and a bit crazed manifesto. The Oklahoma City bombing was traumatic for all of us, I think; it is certainly the first big terror event that I remember. The abortion bombers and snipers who blew up abortion clinics in some sort of religious zeal and fervor that said it’s okay to kill the pregnant woman, the doctor, and (of course) the fetus along with them. But somehow and until 9/11 these homegrown terrorists didn’t “feel” threatening, they felt like the necessary negative side of a free country, like blips on the radar screen of American life, like an entry in the relatively short “con” column of a free and open democracy.
The 1993 World Trade Center bombing got coverage, but not much, and certainly not as much as it should have; that was the “heads up” we should have paid attention to, that was al Queda coming out of the woodwork and showing itself to the American public, and we missed it. But then 9/11. In the aftermath of 9/11, when we first went to Afghanistan to roust Osama bin Laden, we found an American kid (about 20, I think) over there, training in the camps alongside the religious zealots who would destroy our way of life. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t remember the details about this kid, but the implication of finding him there, of seeing what he might do remained with me, and we know that where there is one such person, there are and will be others. Some of our own citizens have such hatred for their country that they would join forces with these terrorists in order to destroy us. Or perhaps it’s not hatred of country, maybe they’re rebelling against mom and dad, maybe they want to be “famous,” maybe they’re bored. I do vaguely recall that this kid testified that he would be unable to function as a suicide bomber (which may have been his intended role), and this does not surprise me.
Our culture “gets” dying for our country, patriotism on steroids, but we don’t “get” anyone willing to blow themselves up to kill a few folks waiting for a bus. In fact, this lack of understanding of that sort of commitment (for lack of a better word, we are committed but not stupid, and we see suicide bombings, etc. as stupid. Anyway, our lack of understanding of that sort of thing) didn’t work well for us in World War II; we didn’t “get” the Japanese kamikaze pilots, we didn’t believe that anyone would do this horrible thing to themselves, and we kept not believing it until we had nothing but evidence to the contrary.
One of the things that has caused so much confusion on the part of the American public is the cultural gap between U. S. and them. This confusion makes it impossible for us to understand that someone would want to wipe us off the face of the earth in a holy war, or in something posing as a holy war but likely tinged with outrage at our past actions and a strong desire for revenge for some of the perceived (and real) harms our policies have done in foreign countries, particularly those in the Middle East. So we don’t get it, and we perhaps never will. Instead, we make faulty comparisons . . . 9/11 was “like” Pearl Harbor, only there is little, if any, comparison to be made: Pearl Harbor was a nation’s direct attack on one of our nation’s military installations during a World War, which granted we’d been only dipping our toe into at that point. But it was clear who attacked. And it was clear that it was an act of war. And it was clear what we had to do in response. Not so with 9/11. On any point.
Another comparison we hear is that the “war on terror” is “like” the Cold War, only there is little, if any, comparison to be made: the Cold War was a stand-off between near equal powers, certainly between powers each of which could do very real and very significant harm to the other. The Cold War had clearly defined participants and clearly defined bystanders (some hoping to hop in, some hoping to be overlooked). Yes, the Cold War was in large part a clash of cultures, or more pointedly, a clash of political ideology, but it was clear who was doing what to whom, and it was clear what sanctions could be placed on whom for what length of time and for what reason. Not so with the war on terror. Terrorist organizations are everywhere, sleeper cells are believed to be in every major city in the U. S. and in some not so major ones. There is no country to sanction, there is no nation to stand off against. You can’t go to war with “the nation of Islam,” there are non violent non fanatic Islamic people all over the world, just as there are the fanatics using the cloak of jihad to terrorize and destroy us. This time in history is not “like” any other, there is not a “like” situation to compare it to nor to use as precedent. And while it is certainly human nature or at least in our nature as westerners, as Americans to need to make a comparison, to force a pattern on chaos, to make neat and tidy the unimaginably messy and disordered, this tendency does us far more harm than good. We don’t see what we are actually dealing with because we are so busy peering into the past for something that might be “like” it.
Whatever 9/11 is or isn’t, was or wasn’t, one thing seems pretty clear, it had an impact on us, it changed our global and domestic policies practically overnight and seeped into our consciousness in ways we aren’t fully aware of on a daily basis, but it’s there, looming over us, a dark place in our hearts and minds. Who doesn’t go to the airport an hour or more earlier than we used to, start taking off our jackets, sweaters, shoes without prompting or question? Who among us hasn’t relinquished a sewing kit, disposable lighter, or toenail clipper, tossing it into the bin along with the hundreds of others that travelers forgot to check in their suitcases? There would have been a shouting match between airport security and any citizen whose possession was being confiscated prior to 9/11; arrangements would have been made for the person’s item to be returned to them either on the other end of the flight or once home. No more. And who doesn’t get on a subway or city bus and not for one second at least give pause, perhaps look around at other passengers? Who doesn’t see a lone suitcase or briefcase sitting unattended and suspect a bomb of some sort? Who doesn’t hear news of a train derailment and think ‘terrorism’ (even for a second)? Who doesn’t think “terrorism” when a fire drill takes place? For that matter, who among us would return to our desks if our building was being evacuated and our bosses told us to continue working? And who, now, hearing that our plane had been hijacked would believe that we would be taken to some destination, held, and eventually released? That is not what “hijack” means anymore, right? These are the after shocks of terror, and we’ve all felt them in one way or another and will continue to do so because we now know that we can be significantly harmed right here at home.
And I think that the arrest of seven homegrown terrorists, five of whom are American citizens, brings this point home. When we have our own terrorists doing their terrorist thing, we are appalled, sickened, and bring swift and immediate justice to them: Timothy McVeigh is dead; the Unabomber is rotting in prison, as is Eric Rudolph (one of the more famous anti-abortion terrorists). But we aren’t shaken to our core; our values and self concept (as a nation) are not threatened. These things happen, right? There are bound to be a few nuts out there, that’s why we have laws and prisons.
But when our own citizens join forces with al Queda (or attempt to as in the case of these seven morons), we do not get it. And the arrest of these men, men who thought they were plotting with al Queda to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and a federal building in Miami, brings the scattered and uncontainable nature of this “war on terror” home. ANYONE could be plotting with al Queda, ANYONE could be planning to blow up this building or that train. And if we want to sit back and think we’re safe in our cozy homes and should be restricting our government’s attempts to get a handle on fighting this very different, very sly, very intelligent enemy, multi faced multi headed multi talented, then we are making a huge mistake. We are not paying attention to the reality of the situation, we don’t “get” it, and like the battles lost to kamikaze pilots in WWII, the battles lost to terrorist organizations will add up. Part of the problem with the “round up” of Japanese Americans during WWII occurred because we didn’t pay attention to our enemy; we didn’t try to understand them or fight them in ways they would understand. Instead, we lashed out at innocent people in fear, confusion, and misunderstanding . . . and lived to regret the shameful episode. The same thing, the spirit of the same thing, is building here now. We don’t understand the terrorists, their mindset, what they are willing to do or why; instead, we impose our belief system, our limits and morals on them, and then wonder why we’re not being as effective as we feel we should be by now. If we need to learn from the past, let’s learn that we don’t have the answers, that we don’t know exactly what we are dealing with, and that we better find out fast.
For government information on terror, including what citizens can do to help combat it: http://www.firstgov.gov/Topics/Usgresponse.shtml
For background on some of the terrorist attacks that have taken place in America: http://americanhistory.about.com/library/fastfacts/blffterrorism.htm
For the Sears Tower page: http://www.thesearstower.com/index.html
For the story on the home grown terrorists just arrested: http://articles.news.aol.com/news/article.adp?id=20060622202009990005&ncid=NWS00010000000001 and http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=578&u=/nm/20060623/ts_nm/security_usa_dc_4 and http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/5108546.stm
For information and links concerning Tim McVeigh: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_McVeigh
For information and links concerning Eric Rudolph: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Robert_Rudolph