Along the Tracks

Friday, September 12, 2003

An alternate post-9/11 timeline

I know many other people have thought and written about what other paths America and the world might have taken, post-9/11. What I’ve written below isn’t even entirely original for me. But the message is important at this moment, when we are pounded daily with the media’s unswerving message that the war must end NOW!, that the real enemy is our own leadership, that we deserve any “misfortune” which may come our way, that the “terrorists” are really “freedom-fighters” who want to lift their people out of the tyranny of democracy and success and hope.

I’ve seen several negative comments on Ric Burn’s PBS American Experience piece, “Center of the World,” about the history of the World Trade Center, the attacks, and the aftermath. I had many of those same feelings of anger at the “master of the documentary” for his apparent acceptance of the ridiculous claim that America “had it coming” for its globalization agenda. I was approaching boiling at about the same time as Jeff Jarvis, when the narrator called the terrorists’ use of planes, skyscrapers and media a “poetically horrifying symmetry” - high praise for 19 men whose bloodshed of Americans stands second only to the brother-on-brother violence of Antietam.

Yes, the towers were symbols of American economic power; and al Qaeda’s modus operandi is to attack symbols. They are powerless against the real thing. Symbolic war is all they can wage. Symbolic war, by its nature, also targets noncombatants - the symbolism of 3,000 dead Americans was more potent than a dead soldier or assassinated diplomat. But to call this bloodthirsty targeting “poetic” is akin to calling the bloodspattered WTC plaza, covered with smashed bodies, bone fragments and quivering flesh during that hour of flaming horror, “beautiful.”

And we all know what is meant by “symmetry”: What they did to us is a recreation of what we’ve done to them; it evens the balance. Oh, except we not only didn’t march out into the world killing people, we sent (and continue to send) massive amounts of aid and medication and technology, we fed the hungry, we cleaned the water, we healed the sick, we taught the uneducated. That sounds vaguely “Christian” because it is: Jesus commanded his followers to enter the world and work for good.

This is where we get to the heart of this supposed “symmetry.” The people we have helped, and continue to help, are not the terrorists. They very rarely support the terrorists or their goals. They are largely appreciative of American efforts, and don’t want us to leave.

A small minority in Islam, however, is committed to what I called yesterday the “philosophy of death.” These people believe their interpretation of the Prophet Mohammed is the only correct one, and must be imposed on all people, first inside the Muslim world, then outward among the infidels. Although some of the worst dictators inside the Muslim world are “secular,” they feed on this concept of authoritarian-directed society. A Saddam or a Qaddafi may not be concerned with implementing Sharia, but they are very interested in maintaining an authoritarian-based society - as long as they are the authoritarian. And they also gleefully refer to this harsh interpretation of Islam to justify their brutal regimes. Thus, although the commitment to Islam as religion varies, the commitment to Islamism as philosophy is universal in these tyrants.

And so, we do have a “symmetry,” at least in this sense: A religious impulse at the base of a social philosophy informs the way we interact with those of other faiths. We aim to comfort the “other.” They aim to kill.

The result of this building block in the foundation of Western society can be seen in our response to the 9/11 attacks. The most praiseworthy aspect of Burns’ documentary - something I mentioned in my column in this week’s Leader - was his unflinching replay of that day's sickening events, from the planes crashing to the people waving and then jumping, to the towers falling, to the workers digging that first night under improvised lights.

The footage rekindled my anger - more so than I had expected. And the thoughts which jumped to mind were echoes of what my first impulses were that evening: Blast them all to hell.

You know what? We could have. We could have had bombers over Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran, Kabul, Islamabad in a matter of hours. Shock and awe? We could have nuked Tora Bora to guarantee Osama was dead, dead, DEAD! We could have wiped the slate in Pakistan too, solving the problem of Islamic nuke proliferation at its source, and doing India a very big favor at the same time. We could have informed the Saudis they were now the monarchs of Mecca and Medina, and nothing else - oh, and those were our next targets for the Big Ones if any further terrorist attacks should occur. We could have given Israel not just a “green light,” but a push - reoccupy the West Bank, Gaza, and southern Lebanon, with our help, and eliminate every last vestige of the PLO, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. And if you clean it all up, you can keep it.

President Bush could have announced the tax cuts suspended and an across the board 10 percent cut in all non-military government spending, with the Deparment of Defense budget getting doubled and a draft commencing immediately. We could have announced a policy of pacification of the entire Middle East, Morocco to Kashmir, and made a threat to move into Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines if they didn’t straighten up in one year. We could have told China to take care of North Korea immediately or Kim’s fiefdom would be flattened.

In the days following the 9/11 attacks, these and similar urges were coursing through my veins, and I know I was not alone. Talk radio was swamped with “nuke ‘em” sentiments. My front-page editorial in that week’s Leader (coincidentally about to go to press), written about three hours after the towers fell, immediately argued for war with the Islamists.

However, that basic Western urge, compassion, quickly came to the fore - in myself, in most other Americans, and in the president and his administration. Our response would not be to “pay back” those who had wounded us. Our response would be thoroughly considered, carefully planned, and aimed not only at “punishing the evildoers” - though that was an important part - but at changing the oppressive regimes feeding the philosophy of death. We were not at war with the masses; we were not at war with Islam. We were at war with a very specific political philosophy which manifests itself in oppression of people under the sway of its leaders, and brutality against proponents of other political leanings.

As I wrote yesterday, this “War on Terrorism” was poorly named; I suggested a while back that we should rename this campaign, which is running serially from Afghanistan to Iraq and outward (hopefully without further military action), the “Freedom Wars.” That’s what we’re fighting to keep here at home, and that’s what we’re fighting to bring to that suffering part of the world.

It is yet another demonstration of what is best about Western society - and I'll not apologize for it.

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