Terrorists are made, not born

Indiscriminate bombing? Dirty tricks? They're part of the problem, not the solution.

Published September 12, 2001 4:58PM (EDT)

"How much anger can prompt a group of people to do this?" asked my friend David Handschuh, a New York Daily News photographer, after firefighters pulled him, legs shattered, from the rubble at the World Trade Center.

With President Bush talking of war and "a monumental struggle between good and evil," motivation may seem beside the point. But David's anguished query is the right one, and one we ignore at our peril: What do we make of a rage so deep that it could prompt a few individuals to convert box-cutters, pilots' licenses and airline schedules into weapons of mass destruction?

For now, with the attackers still officially unidentified, the only thing that can be responsibly said is that terrorist killers are made, not born. Call it blowback, call it payback -- but whichever part of the world these sadistic attacks emanated from, it is someplace where people have long acquaintance with body counts and death raining down from the sky.

Handschuch's question is even more relevant because, as the bodies and survivors are finally recovered, the mute bewilderment and confusion will turn into anger of our own. That is natural. But what contours will that rage take as it emerges in Washington and around the country?

President Bush read the words "a quiet, unyielding anger" from his teleprompter Tuesday night. But hours earlier, even as Air Force One scrambled the unseen president's entourage from airbase to airbase to bunker, something different was already evident.

Already, certain Washington hands and select media mouthpieces were playing an alarming blame game, seeking to channel public anger into their long-favored favored projects. On ABC, former Secretary of State James Baker blamed the whole thing on the Church Committee -- the U.S. Senate inquiry that 20 years ago exposed the long history of CIA manipulation of foreign governments and subsidizing of torture. "In terms of intelligence, we unilaterally disarmed," Baker insisted, declaring it time return for a return to the days of unaccountable "dirty business."

He seems to have forgotten just how deeply American embroilment in dirty business -- coups, assassinations, military regimes -- contributed to hatred of the U.S. (Today's CIA, let it be noted, profoundly objects to this yearning by nostalgic old Cold War hands: Earlier this year I attended a conference on terrorism at which Bill Harlow, the CIA's director of public affairs, bluntly said that the intelligence community manages to recruit any sources it desires under current rules.) A few hours later, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger called on the U.S. to flatten Kabul: "We've got to be somewhat irrational in our response. Blow their capital from under them."

Just how effective would the Baker-Eagleburger strike-hard policy be in quelling the terrorist threat? Look at the West Bank, where the cycle of vengeance and victimization gets further cemented into the foundation of daily life with each new home demolition and cafe bombing.

This is no time for lectures; in these first hours and days all of us are thinking about the people who escaped, or who didn't. But with the clamor for aggressive and massive military action already beginning, it's essential to point out just how many of the world's more baleful terrorists and mass murderers were born precisely from the kind of operations now advocated by the bomb-and-assassinate crowd.

Pol Pot? Rode to power after formerly neutral and stable Cambodia was flattened by American bombs. The Taliban? Detritus of the anti-Soviet Afghan guerrilla movement financed and trained by the U.S. Chechnya guerrillas? Russia's own private blowback.

None of this diminishes the responsibility of the perpetrators of this week's attack, or diminishes the need to bring the full force of domestic and international law to bear. But it should serve as a warning to our leaders that assuaging the public's grief with B-52 strikes will reap its own unforeseeable whirlwind. "Blow Kabul from under them?" You might as well hand out box-cutters and directions to Kennedy Airport to every kid in Afghanistan unto the third generation.

And on the domestic front, while comparisons to Pearl Harbor are inevitable, the comments of some politicians Tuesday were a chilly reminder of the worst panic-driven excess of the Second World War: the internment of Japanese-Americans in prison camps. No one was going quite that far. But Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., called for closing the nation's borders. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., propose greatly expanding the FBI's surveillance powers -- powers that already are the broadest in American history. Not that there is a shred of evidence that the cold, disciplined commandos who so carefully perpetrated these ghastly attacks chatted about their plans over cellphones, or that dozens of terrorist teams are creeping in from Vancouver.

What is striking, in fact, is the raging irrelevance of the extreme measures both military and legal authorities proposed in the last 24 hours. "The responses for which support is being mobilized are not going to address the true character of this challenge," says professor Richard Falk of Princeton, a foreign policy scholar who has thought long and hard about the reconfigured world order. "This is the first war for which there is no military solution. And without a military solution our leaders lack the imagination to understand what is happening and what to do."

One former high-ranking federal emergency official and terrorism response expert described to me a recent simulated terrorism exercise that featured role-playing by such Washington luminaries as Sam Nunn and David Gergen. The participants were given an imaginary scenario involving the deliberate release of smallpox. This observer was struck how in the "outbreak's" early phases, when small measures could have made the simulated events more manageable, the players could not settle on a course of action. Later -- when in a real epidemic it would have been far too late -- they resorted to draconian measures. In the all-too-real scenario now playing out in Washington, draconian measures -- political, legal and military -- seem to have similar appeal.

The war has indeed come home. But I don't mean the war on terrorism, a phrase repeated endlessly and meaninglessly on television Tuesday night. Nor do I mean, in any narrow sense, the fanatic war of whoever it was who attacked lower Manhattan. What has come home, on an unimaginable scale and with inconceivable speed, is a vicious cycle of victimhood and revenge -- a bitter, confusing jumble of shock, grief, fear.

"How much anger can prompt a group of people to do this?" That is the question to ask -- of ourselves as well as of our attackers.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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