Friday, July 08, 2005

After Losing Every Battle

It's going to take worse than this before I even hesitate to take public transportation. I grew up on the subways, literally enough that my hesitation at this point would be like ceasing to walk because gangrene and amputation are present in the world.

That said, my heart goes out to London residents past and present. Because of the geographically spread-out nature of the bombs, I doubt Londoners were even offered the very slight but very important comfort offered by the immediate downtown community in the wake of September 11 in NY. The death toll in London is much smaller than that, of course, but they were also spread out enough that it might have seemed to touch every piece of the city a bit more thoroughly than in New York.

But as Ian McEwan (who is amazing) wrote in the New York Times, Londoners were able at some level to take it in stride, as New Yorkers obviously could not. It has for some time been a question of when, as it is for almost every American and ally thereof these days.

So I want to know why we haven't yet realized that a war on terrorism cannot be won.

The point of terrorism (non-state-sponsored) is that you cannot know when to expect it. Okay, the IRA did it a little differently, announcing its bombings, but the ultimate goal was the same: to create an environment wherein you always felt at risk--never knowing when a bomb would be announced on a daily basis is about as bad as never knowing when a bomb will go off or a disaster will take place on an approximately annual basis. Terrorism is intended to shake complacence; al-Qaeda's style of terrorism in particular, either deliberately or due to limited funding and resources, is intended to allow complacence to return and then to reshake it. Our choices, as presented to us by al-Qaeda and its most direct combatants, are to turn a blind eye to the possibilities of horror so clearly omnipresent and to live our daily lives as normal, or to live in constant and ultimately paralyzing awareness of what is and indeed will be always possible.

Fighting a basically conventional war with conventional military terminology and philosophy, if not precisely conventional military tactics, as the Bush administration has done for the last four years, can have no effect on this methodology. al-Qaeda terrorists are infinitely angry and infinitely patient; a person who will sacrifice his life based on his belief in eternal reward has all the time in the world. At first, perhaps, they weren't able to take the kind of power they needed; nevertheless our short memories worked to their advantage. And once they had made an indelible impact once, they were able, and as long as they remain this furious will be able, to yank our chains, simultaneously holding us in thrall and allowing us to believe we're living normal lives. Basically, in order to live after September 11 in the United States, our only option was to accept terrorism as part of our daily lives. As long as terrorist attacks are a possibility (and neither the Bush administration nor any other will ever conclusively prove that they are not, because that's impossible), in some ways the terrorism *has* already won. It's accomplished what it set out to do. The task Bush has set for us in order for us to win is impossible. It's possible, I suppose, that there could be no major terrorist incidents for, say, seven years and then when there was another attack, it could be called a new war rather than simply another battle, but it's pretty much semantics. Short of eradicating the world, we can't win.

(For more references on the unwinnable, please go
  • here
  • and read "U CAN'T WIN" by Octavio R.)

    Our only hope is to make people stop being angry at us. Which sounds inordinately simplistic and will have absolutely no short-term effect, but it's the only thing we can do that has any hope of changing anything ever. The basic tenet is the same as when individuals fight with individuals: we can't control what they're like. We have to accept what they are like, and control what we are like accordingly. People commiting terrorist acts are angry; their anger is justified and the actions they commit out of this anger are not. For purposes of conflict resolution that doesn't matter; our anger, too, is justified, but the actions and philosophies we espouse out of our anger will get us nowhere. We can show that we will defend ourselves, and we can mean it, but we also have to know and accept that no matter how ostensibly thorough our intelligence, terrorist acts, simply by their very nature, will slip through. We must therefore do everything we can to stop people from *wanting* to commit terrorist acts. Which, as I said, will not see results for quite a while. But once we acknowledge the realities of what terrorism is and does, it will lead us to know that exacerbating the anger of terrorists can be of no benefit to us.

    It'll happen again here, fairly soon. Not here where I am, but here in this country; New York or D.C. again, possibly Los Angeles. It'll happen in Germany and Italy, as al-Qaeda has publically warned, and though Germany and Italy will be better prepared to handle it when it comes than was New York four years ago (and yes, I am willing to say that Rudy Giuliani, whatever my deeply ambivalent feelings about him as a mayor and a politician in general, handled that catastrophe *extraordinarily* well, in addition to simply being superior to Bush about it in every way), they will not be able to prevent it from happening. We can't. If we foil one and congratulate ourselves on it, we'll congratulate ourselves for long enough that there will be another. If we attempt to continue watching at all times, our rallying cry becomes that of Harry Potter's Mad-Eye Moody--"CONSTANT VIGILANCE!" And that man was miserable for most of his life, and indeed was viciously attacked despite said vigilance and military skills. Vigilance, yes, but a constant state of anything threatens us. I'll quote Susan Sontag, writing immediately after September 11, 2001. She was derided then and would be now for the same reasons, but she spoke more solidly on this subject than anyone else I encountered (with the notable exception of poet Adam Zagajewski, but he wasn't writing about that particular event). "Who doubts that America is strong?" Sontag asked. "But that's not all America has to be."


    At 3:12 PM, Blogger Michael said...

    Sadly, enough of us abdicated all personal and political [social] responsiblity for the sake of a [-n ungraspable] sense of inviolable security that we placed powers in the hands of our own government, which daily restricts our freedoms more than scattered terrorist acts have or likely will. for all the brouhaha about "If we stop spending-spending-spending, consuming-consuming-consuming, voting Republican-voting-Republican-voting-Republican, then the terrorists will have won", we pretty much handed them that victory on the platter of our manipulable fears.

    Don't know about you, but I am in no way more secure or better off than I was on 9/10/01.

    At 8:59 AM, Blogger Michael said...

    PS -- My Partner was reaidng this comment over my shoulder and promptly reminded me that on September 10, 2001, we were not together. So in that major-ly huge and important way, I am truly better off and more secure than I was. [It still has its moments of terror, though.]


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