Will there be more 9/11s?
Lawrence Davidson argues that unless US policies and behaviour in the Middle East change, “it is more likely than not that another attack of the magnitude of 9/11 will occur within the next 10 years”.
Glenn Greenwald recently posted a short piece about “The human toll of the US drone campaign”. Greenwald noted that the population of the United States is kept in the dark about the civilian victims of the drone campaign by a government that “refuses to disclose anything about these attacks and media outlets [which] virtually never report on [its] victims”. What the US public does get from both of these sources is a picture of the target areas “as a cauldron of sub-human demons”.
Greenwald’s article references a BBC programme about a Pakistani jirga or gathering of tribal leaders. The leaders were from the Warziristan region of the country but the gathering took place in the capital, Islamabad. Warziristan has been the site of many drone attacks and the leaders brought with them some of the maimed survivors so they could be seen and their stories told. The picture that came through is that there are now rapidly growing numbers of innocent victims of these attacks: children, teenagers, adults and the elderly — essentially anyone in the neighbourhood of an intended target. The number of those actually targeted who have been killed is impossible to know because the government will claim such kills even if the only verifiable victims are “half-blinded, double-amputee teenagers”.
Greenwald correctly observes that “it is easy to cheer for a leader when the victims of his on-going violence remain invisible”. However, the question remains, how is this invisible status maintained in a country with a “free press”? Here are some relevant points that might shed light on this issue:
1. The “news business” in America is infinitely more interested in profit than it is in journalistic excellence. Much of that profit comes from advertisers who have no wish to underwrite what might appear to be unpatriotic investigations into unwarranted wars and foreign interventions. This makes the business-oriented boards and stockholders of media outlets very conservative and also encourages a “make no waves” cooperative attitude toward the government and its preferred storylines.
2. Most citizens do not care about all this. In the US, and elsewhere, the majority are apolitical. They focus on the local and other people are “real” relative to their geographic and relational distance. As you move further away from the average person’s focal centre, victims of accident or injustice become more abstract.
3. Being apolitical does not mean that the average citizen cannot be scared out of his or her wits. Deliver the same media message over and over again, consistently and with the right amount of emotion and you can create a nationwide consensus based on nothing but a sales pitch. Among other things, you can sell the population an enemy (Vietnam, Iraq, Iran or any state you chose) to the point where almost an entire nation will support invasion and slaughter. This is what I call a “thought collective”. And, as our own recent history reveals, you can create this sort of groupthink repeatedly over a relatively short period of time.
Greenwald’s piece is an indicator that, when it comes to the Middle East, the United States has long been steeped in a thought collective that distorts the vision of both the common folk and the elites alike. The 9/11 attacks raised this national mindset to the point of near hysteria. In the immediate aftermath of that disaster anyone who suggested that US foreign policy might have helped motivate the terrorists (an obvious fact for anyone who had read the speeches of Osama bin Laden) was likely to be labelled unpatriotic, maybe even a traitor, lose their job, maybe even their friends, and refused admittance into the arena of national mourning. When in early October 2001 Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal gave the city of New York a cheque for 10 million US dollars to help with recovery efforts, Mayor Giuliani rejected the offer out of hand. It seems the prince had suggested that now was a good time for the US to rethink its Middle East foreign policy.
Only in the last year or so have there been signs of small cracks in the thought collective. Growing numbers of ordinary citizens, to the extent that they think about these things at all, want the US out of the Middle East. They are even starting to question the 3 billion dollars a year that goes to Israel. And, it may be that Islamophobia has peaked as a popular topic of national concern. More and more, this bit of paranoia is being identified with fringe factions of the conservative right.
Unfortunately, these cracks are visible only outside the beltway. Inside the beltway, that is in Washington DC, nothing has really changed. The thought collective is, if anything, stronger than ever. This is because the formulation of policy is strongly influenced by special interests whose power over the politicians and the political parties is financially decisive. It will stay that way until millions of Americans decide that change in our foreign policy is important enough to be a voting issue.
Because the thought collective within the government has not changed, foreign policies and actions have not changed. Violent intervention is still the mainstay of policy… Greenwald notes at the end of his piece that while Americans “hear almost nothing” about the victims of US aggression, “the people in that part of the world hear a lot about it and that explains much about the vast discrepancy between the two regions”.
And what might that continuing discrepancy mean for the future of the United States? Well, it means the US will almost certainly lose the war in Afghanistan, just as it lost the war in Iraq. You see, in Afghanistan as in Iraq, there are just too many people who really hold a fearsome dislike for the US, its government and its soldiers, to make likely successful conquest and pacification. A more general victory in the war of terror is equally unlikely. Here the applicable logic is rather simple. There were a set of conditions that led up to the 9/11 attacks and the attacks themselves created a precedent. America’s contribution to those conditions (our policies and our behaviour) have held constant. Whatever damage we have caused Al-Qaida can, and probably will, be repaired and other equally dangerous groups are likely to spring up in the foreseeable future.
So, what then is the answer to the question that serves as the title of this short essay? The honest answer is that if there continues to be no change in US policies and behaviour in the Middle East, it is more likely than not that another attack of the magnitude of 9/11 will occur within the next 10 years. The timeline is guesswork, but the rest of the answer is not.