I’ve neglecting dipping my toe into the debate regarding the failed terror plot until now. What passed for debate quickly grew tedious since it became transformed into an inconsequential tit-for-tat back and forth regarding the President’s decision to not make a statement or strong response in the middle of his vacation. Cable news networks with space to fill have used surrogates and talking heads to spin to their heart’s content, but what I’d love to see was an actual substantive debate instead of all of the clutter. A start might be in discussing long-range plans for protecting us from subsequent plots and what we out here in the peanut gallery ought to expect or might even need to contribute ourselves to make the process far more efficient. Often our anti-terrorism response has been primarily reactive and defensive rather than taking the fight to our enemy, but by encouraging a more proactive approach I am notably not advocating for preemptive war or increased military buildup of any sort. Instead, I am pushing for a smarter strategy based on a compulsion to objectively study the complexities of a complex enemy. Some might call it “dithering”.
I am not surprised that the Office of Homeland Security failed in its stated objective. I am not surprised that the system let all of us down. Republicans have long advanced the obsessive desire to pare down or even eliminate entirely many government agencies, and yet they established one of their own out of what was deemed at the time extreme necessity. That would be like handing Libertarians control of the United Nations and asking them to devise a new system that would add another seat to the Security Council. Moreover, I strongly believe that establishing a new agency was to some extent merely window dressing set in place to pacify people who were understandably worried and fearful after the 11 September 2001 attacks. Homeland Security, in many ways was a completely disingenuous, empty construct, like so many made in the immediate aftermath (See: Color-coded Terror Alert scale) since we know now that power and with it decision-making was primarily concentrated during the Bush Administration years in a very secretive, very small inner circle.
Many Futurists, those who observe existing trends and predict trends likely before us, have come to a belief that we are in for a 30-40 year period of terrorism. And as soon as it subsides, it is highly probable that something else will spring up in its place. We enjoyed a relaxing, but short-lived, decade-long respite from the Cold War, but before that we clung desperately to the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction as the most supreme deterrent to prevent nuclear war with the USSR. Furthermore, much of our national identity is based upon the first two centuries of this county’s history, years when we were very much an isolationist country cautious of foreign entanglements. Back then we ran a strong second place to the nation/states of Western Europe, though we dreamed to scale those same heights. Our status as a superpower is still a relatively recent development and we have yet to either firmly embrace it or to understand its implications. If we did, we might understand one important reason why we are consistently targeted by radical Islam. Anyone who has been the runaway number one for any extended length of time is going to have a bull’s eye emblazoned upon them and create instant motivation for those who are jealous and envious.
Additionally, though this nation has a long, ignoble history of disregarding the basic rights and just recompense owed to its own indigenous people as well as the natives of other countries when financial gain was at stake, that in and of itself is an insufficient sole rationale for why terrorist tactics are used against us. To be sure, exploitative power plays that privatized oil-rich plots of Native American land claims under the domain and care of the Federal government have antecedents that stretch back to the 1920’s; it is also true that the United States government meddled in the affairs of other countries, particularly in the Middle East and South America to protect its supply of the natural resources coveted by big business. But as for why and where this hatred truly stems from, one needs consider class disparities and economic inequality, which are often the major offenders. Since terrorism cannot so broadly be defined and since each unique group has a different strategy and rationale, it cannot be emphasized enough that terrorism has no one set definition nor stated agenda. Where simplistic answers or a lack of them altogether exists, baseless speculation rushes in to fill the void.
It is indeed true that a common enemy in the form of the United States of America is the focal point upon which a variety of terrorist organizations draw unity. Yet, what we don’t hear about quite so often is that many of these groups also target governments in their own region, so it would be a mischaracterization to assume that all cells purely project their entire hatred upon the Great Satan. When we over-simplify a very complex issue like Terrorism for the sake of time constraints or election year sloganeering, then we do everyone a grave disservice. So many Republican talking points would be reduced to either wishful thinking or naive saber-rattling if the public knew just how nuanced were the goals, ambitions, and agendas of those who advocate our utter destruction.
Cultural identity, just like individual identity is predicated on difference, not on similarity. We form our conception of ourselves and our country based on how we differ from other nations and other peoples. Those who have traveled outside of the U.S. are instantly aware of their American citizenship when surrounded by a culture completely different from their own. Those who would otherwise discount or take for granted their status as Americans often metaphorically wrap themselves in the Stars and Stripes when on foreign soil. In so doing, they often seek out conversation and companionship with other ex-patriots, even those they would likely never give a second glance to when back inside the borders of their own country. Other important identities we claim for ourselves manifest themselves in this same manner when we are isolated from a larger gathering, be it religious/spiritual identification, supporter of a particular sports team, adherent to a particular philosophy or movement—to merely state a few examples. As we have seen with Al-Qaeda, its adherents hail from a variety of countries and cultures, but it is unified out of a sense of collective purpose, a more or less common enemy, and a uniform belief system.
Any defensive measure we or any other country adopts to contain and detect terrorist cells is going to need to recognize that our commitment to keep the citizens of the United States safe from this unique threat should expect to be in place for at least a generation, perhaps even a bit longer than that. This was a long time coming and it will be a long time gone. Government does not need to be scrapped, but it does need to be streamlined considerably. We’ve seen this in plain view recently with the health care debate. Our legislative branch was never built for speed or swift decision making and, prior to that, we viewed the shameful epic fail of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), itself under the dubious control of Homeland Security. Populist anger drives the opinions of many at this time, but though I have heard the voices or read the words of those who tear into the worthlessness of government and with it the base incompetence of government officials, I have heard precious few solutions or proposals that might reduce or at least begin to address the problem. Notably this unfocused rage isn’t just relegated to the person on the street. It also finds favor in the form of the person paid to state an opinion supposedly shared with the person on the street.
What continues to amaze me (perhaps I should not be surprised) is how a certain brand of ultra-hawk led by Dick Cheney has ripped into the President for somehow downplaying the importance of the would-be Christmas Day underwear bomber. While Americans can at times be duped, they are not rubes. Having seen the 11 September attacks transformed into a shaky rationale for a costly and highly unnecessary war, they now hold a skeptical, cynical opinion regarding the amazing assertion that anyone who argues that a new President elected to right those wrongs doesn’t believe that we are really still at war. Cheney seems to want to live in the past, somewhere around 2003, when the Administration of which he was a vital part still held some degree of veracity with the American public. He fails also to understand that recent disappointment with President Obama does not mean that Bush Administration policies are somehow being vindicated in the process. The former Vice-President is just as unpopular now as he was the day he left office and those who might concede him one or two hair-splitting points do so grudgingly at best.
Much of what lies ahead of us is brand new and unprecedented. I can understand anyone’s reluctance to sound the twelve-alarm-fire as we did after 11 September. It was taxing, exhausting, and emotionally draining. I have absolutely no desire to repeat the process. As many of us are already strained and feeling vulnerable from the recession and the dismal unemployment rate, I simply don’t think we have much in reserve left to enter into the state of panic and paranoia that existed in the immediate aftermath of that awful day. Not overreacting would probably do us well, especially if one keeps in mind the aftermath of the attacks, which spawned a thousand unfounded rumors and knee-jerk reactions. It is notable that when we have the ability to create imaginary bogeymen, we do so in ways that hindsight renders absolutely ridiculous. When our free time and our ability to conjure up the fanciful is muted, then we are better able to keep things in perspective. It really makes one wonder if times of adversity are as bad as we might think they are.