America and Americans on September 11 experienced the full horror of what must surely be the greatest display of grotesque cunning in human history. Its essence consisted in transforming the benign, everyday technology of commercial jet aircraft into weapons of mass destruction. There has been much talk about Americans discovering the vulnerability of their heartland in a manner that far exceeds the collective trauma associated with the attack on Pearl Harbor. But the new vulnerability is radically different and far more threatening. It involves the comprehensive vulnerability of technology closely tied to our global dominance, pervading every aspect of our existence. To protect ourselves against the range of threats that could be mounted by those of fanatical persuasion is a mission impossible. The very attempt would quickly turn the United States into a prison-state.
And yet who can blame the government for doing what it can in the coming months to reassure a frightened citizenry? Likely steps seem designed to make it more difficult to repeat the operations that produced the WTC/Pentagon tragedy, but it seems highly unlikely that a terrorist machine intelligent enough to pull off this gruesome operation would suddenly become so stupid as to attempt the same thing soon.
The atrocity of September 11 must be understood as the work of dark genius, a penetrating tactical insight that endangers our future in fundamental respects that we are only beginning to apprehend. This breakthrough in terrorist tactics occurred in three mutually reinforcing dimensions: (1) the shift from extremely violent acts designed to shock more than to kill, to onslaughts designed to make the enemy’s society into a bloody battlefield, in this instance symbolically (capitalism and militarism) and substantively (massive human carnage and economic dislocation); (2) the use of primitive capabilities by the perpetrators to appropriate technology that can be transformed into weaponry of mass destruction through the mere act of seizure and destruction; (3) the availability of competent militants willing to carry out such crimes against humanity at the certain cost of their own lives. Such a lethal, and essentially novel, combination of elements poses an unprecedented challenge to civic order and democratic liberties. It is truly a declaration of war from the lower depths.
It is important to appreciate this transformative shift in the nature of the terrorist challenge both conceptually and tactically. Without comprehending these shifts, it will not be possible to fashion a response that is either effective or legitimate, and we need both. It remains obscure on the terrorist side whether a strategic goal accompanies this tactical escalation. At present it appears that the tactical brilliance of the operation will soon be widely regarded as a strategic blunder of colossal proportions. It would seem that the main beneficiaries of the attack in the near future are also the principal enemies of the perpetrators. Both the United States globally and Israel regionally emerge from this disaster with greatly strengthened geopolitical hands. Did the sense of hatred and fanaticism of the tactical masterminds induce this seeming strategic blindness? There is no indication that the forces behind the attack were acting on any basis beyond their extraordinary destructive intent.
And so we are led to the pivotal questions: What kind of war? What kind of response? It is, above all, a war without military solutions. Indeed it is a war in which the pursuit of the traditional military goal of “victory” is almost certain to intensify the challenge and spread the violence. Such an assessment does not question the propriety of the effort to identify and punish the perpetrators and to cut their links to government power. In our criticism of the current war fever being nurtured by an unholy alliance of government and media we should not forget that the attacks were massive crimes against humanity in a technical legal sense, and those involved in carrying them out should be punished to the fullest extent. Acknowledging this legitimate right of response is by no means equivalent to an endorsement of unlimited force. Indeed, an overreaction may be what the terrorists were seeking to provoke so as to mobilize popular resentment against the United States on a global scale. We need to act effectively, but within a framework of moral and legal restraints.