The events of Sept. 11, 2001, have been compared to Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, 60 years earlier. As explained in column #3 ("Will the War on Terror Persist or Evaporate" June 14, 2002) the two events had many similarities, for example, approximately the same number of Americans killed. But there was a big difference in the size of the danger the United States faced.
After Dec. 12, 1941, we knew the Japanese, along with the Axis powers, were the world's best-prepared, battle proven, militarily forces, at the ready to attack the United States with enormous assets – namely, an armed force of over 5 million men capable of waging and surviving a long war with millions of deaths.
All we knew for sure after Sept. 11 was that the 19 suicide bombers were dead and could do no further harm and we knew, or at least were told by the media, that the instigators of the war were part of a group of perhaps as many as 60,000 (al Qaeda). This group was funded and led by Osama bin Laden, a civil engineer opposed to both the Saudi royals and the United States and the dissident scion of a wealthy Saudi family. Few at the time knew that the bin Laden family had close ties to the Bush family and the Carlyle group, but that is another story.
A historical comparison to the Sept. 11 disaster was the most deadly natural disaster in the history of the United States: the Galveston, Texas, hurricane of Sept. 8, 1901, when more than twice the deaths of the terrorist tragedy – 6,000 to 8,000 – occurred.
Virtually every American witnessed live via TV and in thousands of re-plays the two attacks on the World Trade Center. They saw the collapse of both the first and the second Twin Towers, the ultimate symbols of America's global economic strength. The events of Sept. 11 were a carefully planned, made-for-TV success for al Qaeda. Close studies of the motivations and intentions of al Qaeda leadership (see column #23,"Defeating Terrorism", Sept. 1, 2003) makes clear that Sept. 11 was a dream come true for them. They got what they wanted and more than they could rationally have expected. They need never try to surpass their success in the United States and so far, they have not come close. Six months ago in column #23, when most Americans and U.S. leaders, both then and now, expected new al Qaeda attacks in the United States, I predicted attacks on the Sept. 11 scale or larger were unlikely in our lifetime.
Al Qaeda's Sept. 11 success produced a U.S. reaction several orders of magnitude greater than any previous terrorist action, such as the 1993 truck bombing of a World Trade Tower in Manhattan. The U.S. reaction to Sept. 11 led by President George W. Bush's global war on terrorism (and evil) was U.S. troops invading Afghanistan and Iraq thought to be supporting terrorism. These invasions have been confined to the Islamic world and produced close to a thousand U.S. deaths and tens of thousands of enemy and non-combatant deaths. The invasions and reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan and homeland security together cost the United States (both spent and committed) over hundred billion dollars, almost a thousand dollars for every individual American.
Osama bin Laden's out-of-pocket financing of the Sept. 11 attacks was over a hundred thousand times smaller, less than a million dollars. Beyond that, Muslims everywhere saw the United States, largely a Judeo-Christian nation, invade, occupy and struggle in the quagmire of transforming Muslim countries into Western-style nations. This behavior seems like a 21st century extension of the 11th -13th century patterns of the seven European Christian crusades.
What is the potential future damage of the United States from al Qaeda?
flying large plane into nuclear power or chemical plant?
exploding dirty bomb in the heart of Washington?
interfering with the electric power grid control?
shutting down the economy through cyber-terrorism?
Each could produce more deaths than Sept. 11, perhaps 10,000, but only a large nuclear weapon exploded in a major city could produce deaths numbering in the millions. The possibility of proliferating nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands becomes ever more likely as the U.S. government sees nuclear weapons not just for deterrence but for penetrating deep enemy caves or dominating space. The possibility is compounded by U.S. leaders promoting pre-emptive warfare in the name of national defense.
These government policies have been challenged by majorities of the American people who believe that the ultimate goal for the United States should be the total elimination of nuclear weapons, not for perpetual retention by the U.S. and a few select allies (See pp. 54-55 in "Locating Consensus for Democracy" for this data). Survey questions on the elimination of nuclear weapons have been repeatedly asked from 1987 to 1997, but according to the largest available polling database, no such questions have been asked prior to 1987 or after 1997. Governments have preferred that the public not be aware of a national nuclear allergy that opposes what U.S. leaders want.
The United States has certainly killed or incapacitated many terrorists, real and imagined. Yet U.S. behavior has also created new potential terrorists and we cannot tell clearly whether we are progressing or struggling to exit from a growing quagmire. Compared to supportive attitudes of the people and leaders of the rest of the world immediately after Sept. 11, the United States has certainly lost friends in large numbers in almost every country in the world.
A positive way to bring the Sept. 11 events down to size is to recognize that the most under-reported good news story of the century was arguably this: Of the 1,000 skyscrapers in the United States – 10,000 in the world – all but two were left standing after the Sept. 11 suicide bomber attacks.
Our national attention is so dedicated to fighting terrorism that we are inattentive to non-terrorist threats that are likely to be much more disastrous in lives and in dollars. None of our anti-terrorist efforts have the slightest bearing on mitigating natural disasters that loom in our own (and in our children's and grand-children's) lifetimes that we can do something about. Our short-sighted political leaders, supported by advertising/marketing-driven polling by corporations and media, avoid serious discussion, confrontation and action to mitigate such disasters as:
global climate change from human production of greenhouse gasses
depletion of land/ocean food chains by growing polar ozone holes,
over-fishing decimating fish populations world wide
shrinkage of healthy coral reefs, top soil, aquifers and salt-marshes
growing toxicity of soil/water from pesticides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers
Other, even larger disasters, have gathered slowly, protected by the economic and technological imperatives of our culture. Long standing examples are the 50,000 U.S. automobile deaths annually and the 4.8 million tobacco-smoke deaths globally. Newer developments such as genetic engineering, animal and human cloning, and trans-species disease epidemics with global reach may become even greater disasters, under the protection of the same cultural imperatives.
U.S. leaders promise to stay the course, to do whatever becomes necessary to eliminate evil, including chipping away the freedom of their own people, which is us. These facts make it clear to me that U.S. priorities are so misdirected that it is fair to say that our leaders and our people, as long as we remain willing victims, are insane, not in the pejorative sense, but in the clinical sense that our behavior will lead to our own destruction.
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