A WAR FOR CIVILIZATION
by Mark Steyn • September 11, 2011
In this tenth anniversary week, we're running various 9/11 material old and new. We started with Smelling Blood, my column on the summer of 2001, and a special audio edition of our Song of the Week: God Bless America. Then we looked at the war in its narrow, terrorist sense - Crying Lone Wolf - and on the broader front - Winning And Losing. Mark's Friday Feature considered September 11th in cinematic terms, and on Saturday we looked back at the war from five years on. This is what I wrote ten years ago, on Tuesday, September 11th 2001, for the following morning's National Post in Canada and that week's Spectator in Britain. This version is from The Face Of The Tiger, with second thoughts at the foot of the page:
You can understandÂ why they're jumping up and down in the streets of Ramallah, jubilant in their victory. They have struck a mighty blow against the Great Satan, mightier than even the producers of far-fetched action thrillers could conceive. They have driven a gaping wound into the heart of his military headquarters. They have ruptured the most famous skyline in the world, the glittering monument to his decadence. They have killed and maimed thousands of his subjects, live on TV. For one day they reduced the hated Bush to a pitiful Presidential vagrant, bounced further and further from his White House to ever more remote military airports, from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska, by a security staff which obviously understands less about the power of symbolism than America's enemies do.
And, for those on the receiving end, that "money shot", as they call it in Hollywood - the smoking towers of the World Trade Center collapsing as easily as condemned chimneys at an abandoned sawmill – represents not just an awesome loss of life but a ghastly intelligence failure by the US and a worse moral failure by the west generally.
There was a grim symmetry in the way this act of war interrupted the President at a grade-school photo-op. The Federal Government has no constitutional responsibility for education: it is a state affair, delegated mostly to tiny municipal school boards. But one of Bill Clinton's forlorn legacies is that the head of state and the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful nation on earth must now fill his day with inconsequential initiatives designed to soothe the piffling discontents of soccer moms and other preferred demographics of the most pampered generation in history: programs to connect elementary schools to the Internet, prescription drug benefits for seniors, government "lock-boxes" for any big-ticket entitlement the focus groups decide they can't live without, and a thousand and one other woeful trivialities.
And so the President was reminded of his most awesome responsibility at a time when he was discharging his most footling. If you drive around Vermont and Massachusetts and California, you spend a lot of time behind cars with smug bumper stickers calling for more funds to be diverted from defence to education, because this would prove what a caring society we are. Tuesday was a rebuke to those fatuities: the first charge of any government is the defence of its borders – and, without that, it makes no difference how much you spend on prescription drug plans for seniors. From the moment Colin Powell advised against marching on Baghdad and ended the Gulf War, the world's only superpower has been on a ten-year long weekend off. It loaded up the SUV, went to the mall, enjoyed the good times and deluded itself that in the new world politics could be confined to feelgood initiatives – big government disguised as lots and lots of teensy-weensy bits of small government. Yesterday's atrocities were a rude awakening from the indulgences of the last decade, with some awful stories to remind us of our illusions – disabled employees in wheelchairs, whom the Americans with Disabilities Act and the various lobby groups insist can do anything able-bodied people can, found themselves trapped on the 80th floor, unable to get downstairs, unable even to do as others did and hurl themselves from the windows rather than be burned alive.
On Tuesday, the post-Cold War era ended and a new one began.
The first named victim I was aware of was the wife of the Solicitor-General, Barbara Olson, whom I sat next to at dinner a few weeks ago. She was one of the "blonde former prosecutors", which sounds like a rock band but was the standard shorthand for the good-looking female commentators who turned up on CNN every night during impeachment – she was smart, witty, a fearless scourge of the Clinton Administration. She'd postponed her trip to California by a day so she could wish her husband Ted a happy birthday on Tuesday morning and so found herself on American Airlines flight 11. She had time to call to tell him her plane was being hijacked and that she had been hustled to the back of the cabin with the other passengers and flight crew. By then, the Solicitor-General knew that two planes had deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center. He told Barbara what was happening –that she wasn't in the hands of some jerk who wants his pals sprung from jail and a jet to Cuba but cooler customers with bigger plans. A few seconds later her flight ripped through one side of the Pentagon.
I'm sure Ted Olson, in the course of the day, saw some of those TV pictures of taxi drivers, merchants and schoolchildren in Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine passing out candy to celebrate the death of his wife and thousands of others. This is not terrorism -Â five guys in ski masks plotting in a basement. This is war, waged in the shadows but openly cheered by millions and millions of people and more covertly supported by their governments, including some who are, officially, our "allies". America lost 2,403 people at Pearl Harbor, 2,260 in the War of 1812, 4,435 in the entire Revolutionary War, and 4,710 on the worst day of the Civil War. It is entirely possible that the final loss on Tuesday will exceed those totals combined. That's war.
What matters now is how the US reacts. President Bush, echoing a long line of British Prime Ministers responding to IRA attacks, called the perpetrators "a faceless coward". "Cowardly," agreed Rudy Giuliani, and Jim Baker. Those Prime Ministers were wrong and so are the President, the former Secretary of State, and the Mayor of New York. The men or women who do such things are certainly faceless but not, I think, cowards. A coward would not agree to hijack a plane. Many others might do it for, oh, $20 million, a change of identity and retirement in the Bahamas: those would be the stakes if life was run by Warner Brothers or Paramount and the terrorist was played by John Travolta or Bruce Willis. But very few of us would agree to hijack a plane for the certainty of instant, violent death. We should acknowledge that at the very least it requires a kind of mad courage, a courage 99% of those of us in the west can never understand and, because of that, should accord a certain respect. Assuming (as Barbara Olson's phone call seems to confirm) that no United or American Airlines flight crew would plough into a crowded building even with a gun at their heads, the men who took over the controls were sophisticated, educated people, perhaps even trained jet pilots who could be pulling down six-figure salaries in most countries but preferred instead to drive a plane through crowded offices in one all-or-nothing crazed gesture. If these men were cowards, this would be an easier war. Instead, they are not just willing to die for their cause, but anxious to do so.
And what causes are we willing to die for? By "we", I mean "the west", though in truth these days that umbrella doesn't cover a lot – the United Kingdom, most of the time; France, when it suits them; Canada, hardly at all, not in any useful sense. Even America's sense of purpose has shrivelled away since the Gulf War: Why was there such a comprehensive intelligence failure? Is it because the US has come to rely too much on electronic surveillance – satellites, telephone interceptions - and virtually eliminated human intelligence – the old-fashioned spies who go into deep cover at great risk to themselves? And is the delusion that you can fight terrorism with computers from outer space just another wretched example of the nouveau warfare pioneered by Mr Clinton in Kosovo? Or, to be more accurate, not in Kosovo but far above it and then only after dark on clear nights, dropping Tomahawks at a million bucks a pop on empty buildings. One quasi-governmental network of killers can find four fellows who can fly a jet willing to commit suicide on the same day, but the Clinton Doctrine tells the world that the greatest military power on the face of the earth no longer has the stomach for a single body-bag. The doughboys of the Great War went off singing, "We won't come back till it's over/Over There!" But not Mr Clinton's army: We won't go over till it's over/Over There! Such a craven warmonger cannot plausibly call anybody else a "faceless coward".Â In Kosovo, America declared it was prepared to kill, but not to die. Their enemies drew the correct lesson.
There are cowards elsewhere, too. The funniest moment in the early coverage came when some portentous anchor solemnly reported that "the United Nations building has not been hit". Well, there's a surprise! Why would the guys who took out the World Trade Center and the Pentagon want to target the UN? The UN is dominated by their apologists, and in some cases the friends of the friends of the fellows who did this (to put it at its most discreet). All last week the plenipotentiaries of the west were in Durban holed up with the smooth, bespoke emissaries of thug states and treating with them as equals, negotiating over how many anti-Zionist insults they could live with and over how grovelling the west's apology for past sins should be. Yesterday's sobering coda to Durban let us know that those folks on the other side are really admirably straightforward: they mean what they say, and we should take them at their word. We should also cease dignifying them by pretending that the foreign ministers of, say, Spain and Syria are somehow cut from the same cloth.
There is also a long-term lesson. The US is an historical anomaly: the first non-imperial superpower. Britain, France and the other old powers believed in projecting themselves, both territorially and culturally. As we saw in Durban, they get few thanks for that these days. But the American position – that the pre-eminent nation on earth can collectively leap in its Chevy Suburban and drive to the lake while the world goes its own way – is untenable. The consequence, as we now know, is that the world comes to you. Niall Ferguson, in his book The Cash Nexus, argues that imperial engagement is in fact the humanitarian position: the two most successful military occupations in recent history were the Allies' transformation of West Germany and Japan into functioning democracies. Ferguson thinks the US, if it had the will, could do that in Sierra Leone. But why stop there? Why let ramshackle economic basket-cases like the Sudan or Afghanistan be used as launch pads to kill New Yorkers?
Instead of an empire, the US belongs to Nato, a defence pact of prosperous western nations in which only one guy picks up the tab, a military alliance for countries that no longer in any recognizable sense have militaries. The US taxpayer's willingness to pay for the defence of Canada and Europe has contributed to the decay of America's so-called "allies", freeing them to disband their armed forces, flirt with dictators and gangster states, and essentially convert themselves to semi-non-aligned.
The British no doubt will respond by pointing out how lax American security is, compared to Heathrow or even Waterloo Station. And they're right. Granted, every democratic government knows that sometime somewhere some killer will wiggle through the system. But yesterday all the killers got through. Had the conspirators attempted to seize four planes but succeeded in taking only three, we could have consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we had merely a 75% failure rate. But they successfully commandeered every plane they aimed for: a 100% systemic failure.
The killers picked their point of embarkation well: Boston's Logan Airport is a joke. It is, first of all, not an airport but a building site, and has been for years, a maze of extremely permanent temporary signs, construction sheeting and makeshift walkways, all adding to the chaos. I wasn't catching a flight a couple of weeks back, just meeting one, but it was delayed and I wanted a coffee and newspaper and discovered I had to go through to the "secured" area to get them. Overwhelmed by unnecessarily increased traffic, the security guards could give only a cursory glance to most bags, and a few sailed through the scanner while their eyes were elsewhere. At Logan, "airport security" is an oxymoron.
So let the British gloat: they've got great security systems. But on the other hand what was the point, given that they've decided to surrender slowly, piece by piece, to the IRA? When a great power is faced with a terrorist enemy, it has to win – fast and decisively. It has to identify the leaders, remove them silently and ruthlessly, shred their infrastructure and thus deny them the kind of victories that encourage civilian supporters to think their cause is a going concern. In the Fifties, the British did that in Malaya and saved that country from Communism. A decade later, when the IRA re-emerged, they no longer had the stomach for it.
Let us hope that America doesn't show the same lack of will. This is, as the German government put it, an attack on "the civilized world", and it's time to speak up in its defence. Those western nations who spent last week in Durban finessing and nuancing evil should understand now that what is at stake is whether the world's future will belong to liberal democracy and the rule of law, or to darker forces. And after Tuesday America is entitled to ask its allies not for finely crafted UN resolutions but a more basic question: whose side are you on?
The above column is virtually as it appeared in print, including a few things I was wrong about. The death toll: more than Pearl Harbor and the War of 1812 but less than the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. I was wrong, too, about the "courage" of the suicide bombers: I was not yet sufficiently immersed in the psychosis of Islamism and its perverted death-cultism, in which before committing mass murder one carefully prepares one's genitals because paradise is a brothel. Many readers objected to the passage about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I apologize for giving offence – I'd probably just skip the point if I were writing it today. But the images and stories of the disabled were among the most heart-wrenching of the day, including that of the able-bodied man who stayed – and perished - with his wheelchair-bound friend because he could not bear to leave him and let him die alone. I don't understand why we sue small mom'n'pop businesses because their general store in a remote rural town has no wheelchair ramp, but we cheerfully encourage the disabled to work on the 80th floor of skyscrapers whose first move in an emergency is to shut down the elevators.
Everything else – the ugliness of the Arab street, the uselessness of Nato, the self-loathing of the west, the incompetence of Logan Airport – is sadly just as true today as it was then.
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