So apparently our former vice president had the wireless capability in his implanted defibrilator turned off so that he wouldn’t wind up being the plot of the second season of “Homeland.” Sure, why not? Paul Waldman has a fair take on Cheney’s paranoia, but I do have to quibble with a couple of parts.
Did he also avoid sea travel, since the terrorists could use their nuclear-powered subs to send microwaves at him and fry his brains? What world was he living in?
The answer, in case you’ve forgotten, is that he and so many other Bush administration officials were basically enacting a fantasy in which the enemy—”the terrorists”—were not actually a bunch of semi-literate religious fanatics who got incredibly lucky one time with an extraordinarily low-tech attack, but were actually evil geniuses, had unlimited resources at their disposal, and could execute complex, highly technical schemes with multiple interlocking parts that enabled them to do things like get close enough to the Vice President to deliver him a fatal electric shock. And of course, we can’t close Guantanamo and house the prisoners now there in supermax prisons in the United States, from which no inmate has ever escaped, because they’re terrorists, and who knows what super-powers they might have developed in the fantastically well-equipped lab in their hollowed-out-mountain lair?
If it’s misguided to assume that the 9/11 hijackers were all evil geniuses with superpowers, then it’s also misguided to dismiss them as “a bunch of semi-literate religious fanatics.” For one thing, four of them successfully trained to fly large airliners well enough to successfully (I’m assuming, absent the actions of the passengers, in the case of Flight 93) crash them into their selected targets. That seems more sophisticated than “semi-literate religious fanatic” to me, but I’ve never flown anything so for all I know it’s not that hard to learn. But the hijackers were all learned men; the three members of the “Hamburg Cell” who were the pilots on three of the attacks–Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, and Ziyad Jarrah–were all university students in Germany (al-Shahhi seems to have been a poor student, but there’s nothing to indicate that Jarrah was likewise, and Atta’s academic performance was adequate to good), and the fourth pilot, Hani Hanjour, didn’t turn to Islamic extremism until after he’d obtained his FAA license while on a visa in the US yet had still been unable to obtain employment as a pilot in Saudi Arabia. The rest of the hijackers, the ones for whom such information is known, range from college dropouts to teachers to imams to law students. A few were experienced jihadi fighters from Afghanistan, Chechnya, and/or Bosnia. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the plot, has an engineering degree from North Carolina A&T. These guys were not stupid, and as a group they were not uneducated. The 9/11 plot itself was low tech (the hijackers didn’t have to bring anything more than box cutters to the airport to pull it off) but it did suggest a degree of sophistication and patience in the planning and preparation stages. Sure, they were helped by America’s lax visa oversight, but even that could have been a deliberate exploitation of a studied weakness.
Back in the real world, actual terrorists were struggling unsuccessfully to make their shoes or their underwear explode. So why did people like Cheney want so badly to believe they were fighting Magneto or Dr. No? I think it’s because they all wanted to be Jack Ryan or Jack Bauer. The more terrifying your enemy is, the more courageous and heroic you are. While Bin Laden was holed up in a house in Abbottabad watching DVDs of Three’s Company reruns, Bush and Cheney were imagining that their foe was so unstoppable that at any moment he could penetrate the Secret Service perimeter and kill them with death rays.
I guess what I’m saying is that, on some level, I don’t blame the Bush folks for assuming, after 9/11, that Al-Qaeda had the potential to carry out reasonably sophisticated attacks. In hindsight, attacks like the bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania (both truck bombs) and the attack on the USS Cole (the nautical equivalent of one) were not great strategic or tactical feats, but in hindsight such as it was right after 9/11, which kind of was a significant feat, you can understand how those earlier attacks might seem greater than they were. The failure was (and still is in some respects) to catch on to the fact that 9/11 was the last (first and last, really) plot of that magnitude that Al-Qaeda was able to pull off. Madrid and London were significant attacks, but both were carried out by local cells with little evident planning from “AQ-Main” and neither required the months of preparation (obtaining visas, flight training, etc.) to carry out that marked 9/11.
We need to recognize what “Al-Qaeda” is, mostly, nowadays: a rallying point in the Muslim World for the kind of disaffected fringe elements that have always existed, everywhere. Some foreign group or “mastermind” may provide these guys with inspiration or training, but instead of large-scale, fairly intricate hijacking plots you get some dude trying to blow up the dud of a bomb he put in his car in Times Square, or some guy trying to make his underpants explode on a plane–potential dangers, for sure, but not of the scale or type for which we geared up after 9/11. This, I suppose, represents a success on the part of American counter-measures put into place after the attack, but because we’ve mostly failed to recognize and react to this shift we also don’t really know which elements of those counter-measures actually work and which are either unhelpful or downright counter-productive/dangerous. Worse, by continuing to assume that we’re dealing with a complex global network capable of the most destructive attacks we are putting ourselves at risk of preventing the last attack but failing to see the next one. We’re focusing, say, on the international WMD attack that we’re sure is coming or on some terrorist hacker wunderkind remotely giving the vice president a heart attack, when meanwhile the real danger is probably something much less grand.
Waldman gets this right:
There’s a practical side to this, which is that the more people thought 24 represented the reality of terrorism, the more willing they’d be to shrug their shoulders at things like vastly expanded surveillance and the use of torture. In the real world, “ticking time bombs” are so rare as to be essentially non-existent, and the torture policy (and even the actual torture techniques) were designed by people who knew virtually nothing about how to get information from a prisoner who doesn’t want to give it to you. But hey, on 24, not only did torture always work, it worked fast—60 seconds was about average—and everything a terrorist said under torture turned out to be true. How could you not use it?
Our continued treatment of large-scale Islamic terrorism as an existential and ever-present threat serves a number of political aims, and that’s why it continues despite there being precious little real-world evidence to support our supposed fears. I suspect that Obama understands this on some level, but it’s going to be hard to make our security institutions understand it, let alone to get them to change accordingly.