Much airtime and bandwidth has been devoted to the “brilliance” of the elaborately-planned and well-executed September 11 terrorist strikes on New York and Washington. Some of the commentary has sounded almost breathless with admiration for the daring and co-ordination required to put it all together and bring it off. But there is reason to speculate, and to be grateful, that the attacks fell far short of their planners’ original hopes and expectations.
There is no mistaking the symbolic importance of these events. Pictures of the Pentagon in flames and the World Trade Towers collapsing captured the planet’s attention as nothing else has done since the first photographs of mushroom clouds from nuclear detonations were circulated. For their intended target audience, the images produced the intended effect: terror. Elsewhere, others celebrated as though they were cheering rebels from another galaxy who had blown up the Death Star.
Then, too, there were the images of the American president, visibly shaken in Florida, flying first to Louisiana, then to Nebraska. Though later Bush would appear in command, especially in his address to both houses of Congress, initial appearances were not reassuring. People understood that protecting the security of the president was important, but they also needed someone higher-up than Dan Rather to tell them that the basic institutions of the country were intact.
As of this writing, more than two weeks have passed since the attacks without a single shot being fired in retaliation by the United States, and President Bush’s “wanted: dead or alive” rhetoric has been replaced by appeals for “patience.”
However important media images may be, the events of September 11 did not take place in virtual reality or cyberspace. They were not staged for television. The goal of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Towers was not merely to create unforgettable pictures. There is reason to believe the perpetrators had anticipated killing as many as 250,000 people.
According to testimony from his trial, Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the terrorist convicted and sentenced to 240 years in prison for masterminding and helping to carry out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, told Secret Service agent Brian Parr that he considered his plot to bomb the 110-story twin towers a “disappointment” because one tower did not collapse on the other and kill everyone who was working in the towers, visiting them or circulating in the streets below.
It is unlikely that terrorist goals have changed significantly since 1993. And if 250,000 people was the anticipated body count at the World Trade Center, it is reasonable to speculate that the intended damage at the Pentagon was also significantly greater than the actual result.
Even if one were to discount Agent Parr’s testimony, the fact remains that 250,000 people worked in or visited the World Trade Towers on an average day, and that the death toll could easily have been substantially higher than appears to be the case.
Indeed, the number of potential and intended casualties of the September 11 attacks was far greater than the number of American dead in the entire Vietnam War.
The goal was not merely to topple symbols. It was to kill the maximum number of people.
By that measure the attacks failed.
Full comprehension of the potential gravity of the September 11 strikes reveals the bottomless depths of the implacable hatred focused at the United States. We can debate the causes of this hatred, even our own role in provoking it, but the fact will remain that we are now facing it. It is aimed at Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives and radicals alike.
The very scale of the attacks may also indicate the basis of a strategy: our government is charged with defending not symbols but lives, not “our way of life” but life itself. This is not about the flag. It is about the population, and not only the American population. The number of innocent lives at home and abroad that are already at risk in this newly-proclaimed but very old “war” is astronomical. Our goal should be to defend these lives, all of them, and not to escalate the violence but to stop it.
We could start by proclaiming something besides war.
To end the violence will require not only a search for terrorists but a look at ourselves, not to blame the victim but to determine what long-range policy changes we could make to promote peace, avoid destabilizing entire world regions, abort the spread of hatred and alleviate human misery.
Any effort to “dry up the funding” for terrorism must include a look at our own record of defense spending. We now know that much of the money we spent or made training “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan and selling armaments throughout the region eventually wound up funding attacks on our own population. Some of it was used by our allies in ways that led people to hate us.
Just as we require environmental impact statements, we should demand a new accounting before appropriating money for weapons and military training facilities: what is the likelihood that these weapons and this training will one day be used against us? If those who harbor terrorists are to share their fate, what is to be the fate of those who armed and trained them?
We should ask the same question of any proposed military action: will this make our country and the world safer, or will it come back to haunt us?
Meanwhile, on the domestic front, speaking of threats to the American population, the news is full of reports about people rushing out to buy handguns. Apart from the likelihood that these handguns will wind up killing a significant number of Americans, and ignoring the possibility that terrorists themselves may be lining up to buy them at gun shows, it is unclear how a handgun would have saved anyone in the World Trade Towers.
David Vest is a writer, poet and piano player for the Cannonballs. A native of Alabama, he now lives in Portland, Oregon. Visit his webpage for samples of the Cannonballs’ brand of take no prisoners rock & roll and other Vest columns: