With a single strike al Qaeda changed the course of the world’s hegemonic state, by many measures the most powerful nation (relative to its time) that the world has ever seen. They did this at a negligible cost in money and manpower — never have so few changed so many with so little effort. Our counter-strikes have damaged or crippled al Qaeda, but its leaders may see al Qaeda as the vanguard of their movement, not its body — and hence expendable.
9/11 changed the course of America in terms of both internal and external policy, changing both in ways almost certainly inimical to our long-term strength and prosperity. Al Qaeda manipulated America as a matador does with a bull, waving a cape to so that the bull charges into position for the thrust of the sword.
Update: The comments show that I was not clear. This is not a decisive battle, where thousands fight to determine the fate of nations. This is a dozen guys with box cutters deliberately setting out to change the course of a nation – and succeeding. The multiple of force to effect is astonishing, beyond anything I can think of in history.
These were “super-empowered individuals” not because of what they did — planes crash, buildings burn, life goes on — but because of what we did afterwards. The leverage came not from their actions but through our reaction.
As RJH said in the comments: “The purpose of an action is the reaction.”
Ahead of the pack (as usual) in seeing this, Tom Engelhardt discusses al Qaeda’s triumph in “Kiss American Security Goodbye: 15 Numbers That Add Up to an Age of Insecurity, 15 May 2008 — Excerpt:
The principle behind Tai Chi stayed with me — that you could multiply the force of an act by giving way before the force of others; that a smaller person could use the strength of a bigger one against him.
Now, jump to September 11, 2001 and its aftermath — and you know the Tai Chi version of history from there. Think of it as a grim cosmic joke — that the 9/11 attacks, as apocalyptic as they looked, were anything but. The true disasters followed and the wounds were largely self-inflicted, as the most militarily powerful nation on the planet used its own force to disable itself.
Before that fateful day, the Bush administration had considered terrorism, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda subjects for suckers and wusses. What they were intent on was pouring money into developing an elaborate boondoggle of a missile defense system against future nuclear attacks by rogue states. Those Cold War high frontiersmen (and women) couldn’t get enough of the idea of missiling up. That, after all, was where the money and the fun seemed to be. Nuclear was where the big boys — the nation states — played. “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S….,” the CIA told the President that August. Yawn.
After 9/11, of course, George W. Bush and his top advisors almost instantly launched their crusade against Islam and then their various wars, all under the rubric of the Global War on Terror. (As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pungently put the matter that September, “We have a choice — either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live; and we chose the latter.”)
By then, they were already heading out to “drain the swamp” of evil doers, 60 countries worth of them, if necessary. Meanwhile, they moved quickly to fight the last battle at home, the one just over, by squandering vast sums on an American Maginot Line of security. The porous new Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, the FBI, and other acronymic agencies were to lock down, surveil, and listen in on America. All this to prevent “the next 9/11.”
In the process, they would treat bin Laden’s scattered al-Qaeda network as if it were the Nazi or Soviet war machine (even comically dubbing his followers “Islamofascists”). In the blinking of an eye, and in the rubble of two enormous buildings in downtown Manhattan, bin Laden and his cronies had morphed from nobodies into supermen, a veritable Legion of Doom. (There was a curious parallel to this transformation in World War II. Before Pearl Harbor, American experts had considered the Japanese — as historian John Dower so vividly documented in his book War Without Mercy — bucktoothed, near-sighted military incompetents whose war planes were barely capable of flight. On December 8, 1941, they suddenly became a race of invincible supermen without, in the American imagination, ever passing through a human incarnation.)
When, in October 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, and an Office of Homeland Security (which, in 2002, became a “department”) was established, it was welcome to the era of homeland insecurity. From then on, every major building, landmark, amusement park, petting zoo, flea market, popcorn stand, and toll booth anywhere in the country would be touted as a potential target for terrorists and in need of protection. Every police department from Arkansas to Ohio would be in desperate need of anti-terror funding. And why not, when the terrorists loomed so monstrously large, were so apocalyptically capable, and wanted so very badly to destroy our way of life? No wonder that, in the 2006 NationalAsset Database, compiled by the Department of Homeland Security, the state of Indiana, “with 8,591 potential terrorist targets, had 50 percent more listed sites than New York (5,687) and more than twice as many as California (3,212), ranking the state the most target-rich place in the nation.”
About the author
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years. To catch an audio interview in which he discusses our airborne assassins, click here.
For more information
- The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds.
- A look at al Qaeda, the long war — and us.
- How I learned to stop worrying and love Fourth Generation War. We can win at this game.
- We are the attackers in the Clash of Civilizations. We’re winning.
- Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.