Thoughts on 9/11/01 (revised 9/23)

Why do terrorists attack us?

While I agree that we need to go after the beast hard and fast, I also feel it imperative that we familiarize ourselves with its nature, because right now there is a lot of muddled thinking about why we were attacked in the first place. There's no sense moving forward until we answer this question, because until we do that, we don't understand what we're up against. And if we don't understand what we're up against, anything we do to combat it is going to backfire.

The next incident may very well take the form of chemical or biological attacks, the likelihood of which increased dramatically when the US and its allies backed down from Saddam Hussein's refusal to allow inspections of suspected Iraqi weapons manufacturing facilities. Our unwillingness to press forward with those inspections is going to come back to haunt us someday, and do so in ways that might dwarf the horror of last week's attacks. This is one of the reasons it's so important to deal with the issue of what motivates terrorists: If we find it almost impossible to comprehend how people could do something so terrible to other people, we may be unwilling to face the fact that they could also poison the Chicago water supply, release anthrax in Seattle that would cause the agonizing suffocation of hundreds of thousands, or set off a nuclear device in New York to finish what they believe they'd barely started last week.

Unfortunately, few people appear to be giving any thought at all to why we're such a popular target. We've gotten so used to being hated and vilified around the world that we seem to have stopped thinking about why that should be so. If you were to ask the guy that sells you coffee or delivers your mail, he'd probably mumble something about jealousy or our support of Israel and let it go at that.

Some who have thought about it might think it's because the United States shot down two Libyan planes in 1981, bombed Beirut in 1983 and 19844, bombed Libya in 1986, sank an Iranian ship in 1987, shot down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988 and two more Libyan planes in 1989, bombed Iraq repeatedly in the 1990s and Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998, all of which is true (what other country shines spotlights on its own sins?) but all of which is beside the point, because we'd still be a target had none of those things ever happened. As for the State of Israel, we'd be a target even if didn't exist at all.

Part of the reason we don't think about this topic is that there is a tendency within our government and among the media not to give a lot of air time to people who hate us, which is understandable but does little to increase our comprehension of why they behave the way they do. (I've always found it odd that people with strong beliefs about important issues generally only read publications and listen to commentators that exhort them to believe things they already believe. Seems to me that seeking out and listening carefully to people you disagree with makes much more sense.)

So why is it that we are so hated by Islamic extremists?

The key to understanding people like Osama bin Ladn lies in the strange and largely unexamined fact that their attacks on us are never accompanied by any demands. When somebody takes hostages and threatens to kill them unless they get money or a plane or somebody freed from prison, we may not like it but at least it's understandable. But the kind of people we're up against now make no effort to reveal to us what it is they're trying to accomplish. They don't leave notes or send letters to newspapers telling us what it is they want us to do to end the terror. Not that we'd do any of those things, but we're not even presented with the option. Since we can't see their rationale, and don't seem to be very interested in learning it, we assume that they are simply deranged psychopaths with a warped political agenda. This is a terribly dangerous assumption because they're not psychopaths; they're something much worse. And their agenda is not political.

What I believe we need to come to grips with is that, as far as Islamic extremism is concerned, what we're dealing with is fundamentally a religious issue.

Bin Ladn, Sheik Omar and their ilk believe that the only legitimate form of government is a caliphate led by a Muslim cleric who provides not only absolute moral authority but political authority as well. (A "caliph" is an Islamic spiritual leader who claims direct descendancy from Muhammad.) Governments headed by non-Islamic laypeople are innately heretical, and they feel it their duty to change this situation, much as the Taliban are doing in Afghanistan. They do this in many ways, such as by fomenting religious revolutions like the one that led to the overthrow of Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, in favor of the Ayatollah Khomeini. (Bin Ladn says the world is "divided...into two camps, the camp of the faithful and the camp of the infidels. Every Muslim must rise to defend his religion.")

Now, obviously, there are a lot of governments not ruled by Islamic clergy. Most of them, in fact. So why is the United States so especially hated?

If we were poor, destitute and starving, the bin Ladns of the world could point to us and say, "See what happens to infidels! See how miserable they are because they don't follow Allah, the one true God!"

Unfortunately for their movement, however, we are the most prosperous nation on earth. Short order cooks in this country live better than ninety percent of the population of countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are also the most visible and powerful country on the planet, strutting our wealth in countless ways, not the least of which is by erecting mighty symbols of it that seem to stretch toward heaven itself.

The threat to the Islamic clergy's power base is self-evident. How do they respond when their congregations point to us and say, "How come those infidels all have two cars and a VCR?"

The leaders respond by teaching their people that we are a population of devils led by devils (their words, not mine), that our wealth is both fleeting and self-deceptive, and that Allah wants us destroyed because of how arrogantly we display our godlessness. Of course, there is also the risk that such visible well-being might come to deceive the faithful as it has deceived us, and this would result in loss of the clergy's popular support base.

This kind of thinking is bad enough, but where it starts to get really dangerous is when the clerics decree that anyone who dies in the attempt to destroy us is guaranteed a place in heaven. If you remember that devout Muslims are living for the next life rather than this one, the internal logic of this message is easy to see. And if you rule by divine right, thereby eliminating any reasoned debate or consideration of basic human rights, you can pretty much convince your subjects of anything if you catch them young enough and make the punishments for disobedience severe enough. When the regulation Taliban penalty for a woman who reveals her face in public is 29 lashes, you can instill an awful lot of obedience in a population, especially a poor and uneducated one to whom you have promised glory once they are dead. (The parallels to the darkest days of the Inquisition, one of Western society's worst atrocities in the name of religious fanaticism, are unmistakable.)

That it's a religious and not a political issue explains why we've gotten no demands and have been offered no negotiation. It explains why in 1998 bin Ladn issued (or, more correctly, ordered to be issued) a "fatwah," an explicit religious order, making it the holy duty of Muslims to kill Americans. The people who took out the World Trade Centers believed that they were carrying out a holy war under the direction of Allah's representatives on earth against godless infidels. The matter of specific perceived US transgressions is of marginal importance except insofar as they prove our disrespect for Allah and Islam.

It also explains why negotiating with these people is not an option, because there isn't anything to negotiate. There is nothing we can do to make the attacks stop except become a Muslim state and install an Ayatollah as its head.

Or by eliminating the people who have declared themselves to be our mortal enemies and have sworn blood oaths to keep killing us until we're all gone. Again, their words, not mine.

And new attacks will come. The spectacularly visible success of last week's operation, bolstered by the glory that will be heaped on the perpetrator's names and their families, will provide powerful motivation for those planning fresh assaults for years to come. It doesn't matter if we catch the remaining conspirators in last week's attacks and execute them. It doesn't matter if the next twenty attempts fail and all the perpetrators die. It doesn't matter if we catch them before or during an attack and kill them all. It is critical for those in charge of our response to understand that none of that will be a disincentive to mindlessly obedient fanatics who are not only unafraid to die, but welcome it. What more proof do we need than the fact that getting killed was built right into last week's plan?

This is the face of the enemy. It's not a face we have experience dealing with.

On "declaring war"

Very satisfying words when we're angry, but we have to give this some more thought before we go off and shoot ourselves in the foot.

America has a great track record fighting full-out wars, but there are two conditions under which our record is abysmal. One is when we can't identify the enemy geographically (e.g., the War on Drugs), and the other is when we try to fight on a limited basis (Vietnam, the Persian Gulf).

Fighting terrorist organizations combines the worst of these two conditions, and is therefore not something we want to rush into.

Furthermore, America is used to fighting wars out in the open. Even when we were learning how to battle guerillas in Vietnam, we put the whole thing on television, issued daily reports of advances and setbacks, and tried to keep it clean. This is not going to work against religious terrorists we can barely even identify.

A declaration of war implies a conflict of limited duration in which one side eventually surrenders or capitulates and the other side wins. This is not going to happen when fighting terrorists unless it's a terrorist nation clearly circumscribed both geographically and politically. Hitting religious extremists is like hitting those little mice at the arcade: smack one down and two others pop up elsewhere.

It's going to be an ongoing process, an initial onslaught followed by eternal vigilance, in which the worst enemies we're going to face are our own complacency and our deeply-ingrained sense of decency.

The declaration of a conventional war won't work.

If not a formal war, what should we do?

Despite the real transgressions we may have committed and the questionable judgments we might have made in conducting foreign policy, one fact remains not only inarguable but fully separable from those acts: We have the right to defend ourselves.

Imagine being tortured endlessly by someone who didn't want anything from you, not information or a confession or the names of collaborators. All he wanted was to make you suffer and there was nothing you could do to stop it as long as he was alive.

We have to understand that religious terrorists don't fight according to the Geneva Convention. They don't present their cases at the UN, they don't negotiate, they're not democracies, they have little regard for their own lives and those of their people because they're fixated on a rewarded afterlife, and they have even less regard for our lives because we're devils.

In other words, if we fight them by our traditional rules, we're going to lose.

One of the first sour notes in our celebration of national unity is going to sound when accusations start flying around concerning the question of how it was possible that our intelligence services hadn't a clue about something that must have taken months to plan and had to have been known to dozens, if not hundreds, of people.

Not too long ago Americans were shocked — shocked! — to discover that the CIA had drug dealers on the payroll. We made the Agency stop, because it wasn't nice. We made them stop doing a lot of things that weren't nice.

Well, here's a hot flash from the intelligence front: When you're trying to infiltrate hell, you don't use angels as spies.

You use drug runners, murderers, pimps, whores, thieves and gangsters. You also use terrorists if you have to. You consort with evil to prevent larger evil. You establish priorities and then you make tradeoffs, accepting lesser evils to forestall greater ones. You grit your teeth, you do nasty things.

You don't bring a knife to a gunfight.

Shortly after the British cracked the secret of Nazi Germany's encryption technology during World War II, they intercepted and decoded a message from the German high command that the city of Coventry was about to be attacked by air. At the time, the British had no military units stationed there. Winston Churchill knew that if he were to suddenly move the army in to the protect the town, the Germans would realize that their secret codes were being broken and change their encryption methods. To protect the Allied ability to read German messages, Churchill made the monstrous decision not to move the military in, and he also ordered British intelligence not to warn Coventry of the impending attack. The subsequent losses there were terrible, but Churchill's decision may very well have won the war, and almost certainly shortened it.

All of that seems reasonable to us in retrospect, and few of us would second-guess that decision six decades later, so here's a question: If we were to discover that the CIA had advance knowledge of a terrorist attack but let it proceed unimpeded in order not to blow the cover of agents in place on the trail of a much worse assault, would we approve?

Suppose we discovered that the CIA had actually funded the attack, and that people on their payroll participated in it, and American lives were lost?

No doubt our answers to these questions are different now than they might have been two weeks ago, but even now, when most of us would probably say "Do what you need to do," a much tougher question is begged before we take the cuffs off our intelligence services: Would we believe the CIA when they told us what greater good their deliberate inaction had accomplished? While we're on the subject, would we trust them not to tell us anything at all, believing they were going to do the right thing by us?

I ask these questions because, since the Vietnam War, our answer has been an extremely loud "No!"

One last thought on how we go forward. Our greatest potential allies in dealing with terrorism are the vast populations of Muslims who don't subscribe to the extremist ideas of a handful of well-funded zealots, who cringe at the idea of being lumped in with them in the minds of Americans, who share with Christians and Jews a reverence for the Old Testament and whom we seem to insist on alienating at every opportunity. Our citizens are feeling particularly ill-disposed toward those people right now, a sentiment which wasn't helped by the sight of West Bank refugees celebrating our anguish. That's a shame, and something we need to deal with. Islam is a beautiful religion, born of a desert culture steeped in hardship but eternally hopeful, and whose decent adherents carry the potential of being our most potent weapons against those who would so crassly subvert it. Turning our anger on them because of our frustration in being unable to get at the real villains is not only bad strategy, it's un-American.

* * *

A side note on airline security

The current direction of the FAA with respect to securing airplanes is the same as it's always been and is going to get a lot more people killed than it already has.

While I feel strongly about many of the things I've said thus far but am aware that there are many equally valid variations, on this one I'm downright fanatical, because the entire topic can be netted down to a couple of inarguable truths:

1- The FAA's entire security thrust is to prevent people from carrying weapons onto airplanes.

2- You don't need weapons to hijack an airplane.

Consider this scenario:

Six or eight very large religious fanatics who are physically fit, trained in hand-to-hand combat and already committed to suicide, board a plane at a US airport. Once the flight is airborne they stand up, move to the front of the plane and announce they're taking over

While the passengers -- stunned, leaderless and uncoordinated -- sit immobilized by fear, several of the terrorists guard the cockpit entryway while three others break in and incapacitate the pilots, shut down the engines and, with two good kicks, bend the thrust levers so they can no longer be moved, irretrievably dooming the plane.

All of this takes less than two minutes, and there are no weapons involved. The most sophisticated security devices in the world, functioning perfectly and manned by the best agents available, would not have caught these people before they boarded.

With slight variation and two more men, they could take control of the plane and fly to, or into, anyplace they wanted. If they felt they needed weapons, a couple of tennis racquets with the heads broken off would do fine, or broken bottles from the galley, or stiffening struts from the bottom of carry-on bags, demonstration seat belts used as whips, wooden hangers from the first class closet, fire extinguishers (sprayed or used as heavy clubs), ceramic knives undetectable by security screeners, aerosol hairspray that makes a great blowtorch, toothbrushes with the ends sharpened…etc., etc.

None of these are really necessary, though. They don't need to subdue an entire plane full of passengers. All they have to do is secure a 4-foot wide passageway between the front cabin and the cockpit, and only for two minutes.

Of course, there is the matter of the cockpit door being locked. That might add an extra 15 seconds to the operation while they kick it in or use rolling serving carts as battering rams, but a better idea is just to wait for one of the pilots to come out to pee, or for one of the flight attendants to deliver a cup of coffee, or maybe the hijackers grope her a little or pretend to be drunk and unruly so one of the pilots comes out to put a stop to it .

You get the point. So what's the answer?

There is only one way to prevent hijackers from gaining control of an airplane and that is to harden the cockpit. No way to get in short of explosives (which are very easy to screen on the ground), and nobody goes in or out during a flight. Some aircraft re-design will be required (secure walls and doors, a mini-lav for the crew, a slot to get food in and out), and it will cost, but it will be less than the cost of not doing it.

I look forward to the day when a cockpit door opening during a flight will seem as alien to us as smoking in an elevator seems now.

Meanwhile, the FAA bans corkscrews and forks.

* * *

Note: I apologize for failing to define "terrorism." I've tried many times over the years to do that but kept ending up with either the United States looking like a terrorist for some things we did to Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan or them not looking like terrorists for some of the things they did to us. If you think you've got a good definition, let me know, but please first make sure that, when you apply your definition to the many acts of cross-border violence of the last two decades, you can live with the judgments it produces as to which were and which were not acts of terrorism. That's how I found out none of my definitions worked.

For the purposes of the foregoing discussions, take "terrorism" to mean violent acts against the United States absent a formal declaration of war.

-lee gruenfeld

* * *

(as of 9/23)

The response to the original piece has been overwhelming, and I'm unable to reply individually. Below are some Q&As that may be of general interest. (Go to bottom of this page to respond.)

Questionable US policy
How is President Bush doing?
Aren't we obliged to respect the sovereignty of the Afghani government?
Why don't we just go in with a show of force?
What's more important at this point, punishment or prevention?
Do you agree that things have changed and will never be the same again?
How is the next assault likely to go down?
Weren't the terrorists even more sophisticated than we're being told?
Do you still feel the FAA is all wet with respect to airline security?
Who do you think you are, anyway?
How can Osama bin Ladn issue a "fatwah" when he is not a priest?
You overplayed the suicide aspect.
Were the US bombings of Libya and Iraq terrorist operations?
Why do you continue to use the word "terrorist"?
Where are we heading, in a larger sense beyond individual attacks?
Isn't all this national unity wonderful?
And the surge of patriotism, too?
What is Islam, anyway? [in progress]

I think you underplayed the importance of all those incidents of questionable US policy you listed. They're much more important than you seem to think. You let us off the hook too easy.

Good point; I didn't mean to imply that all of those incidents were not critically important factors. But I still maintain that they are not the central reason for the animosity directed our way. Let me cite an analogous situation to illustrate my point.

Think back to all the enmity heaped on President Clinton when he was in office. His enemies cited his sexual indiscretions, specific legislation he supported, his dissembling under oath, etc. But the fact was that they would have hated him had he done none of those things. Conservatives hated him because he was a popular, charismatic liberal who threatened their power base because he was so visibly successful and people admired him. Without a doubt, all of his transgressions acted powerfully against him, and provided ammunition for his enemies, but they were not the root cause of their hatred. Had he committed none of those perceived sins, he still would have been reviled in many quarters.

In similar fashion, the transgressions I listed and to which you refer made a difference, added fuel to the fire, precipitated specific acts of retaliation and are cited repeatedly by terrorists as justification for their assaults. But they are not the primary reason for why we are so reviled. If they were, then by completely ceasing any such activities we'd end the terror, and that would not happen. The root causes are much deeper and more fundamental.

Also, I don't think I "let us off the hook." My very point in listing the things I did was to make it clear that we should not be let off the hook, but that our culpability is separable from whether we have a right to defend ourselves.

How do you think President Bush is doing?

There is no real way to know, because we treat politicians as actors. Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, about which all that anybody remembers is Nixon's five o-clock shadow and the sweat on his upper lip, news media have been covering politicians as they would the lead performer in a stage play. This one appeared forceful, that one didn't display enough remorse, another one was too wooden, or didn't look his interviewer in the eye or fidgeted or blinked too often or kept his arms folded defensively across his chest. In turn, our leaders have become actors, spending more time with media consultants than policy advisors. President Bush's public addresses have had little substantive detail in them, and news analysts tend to concentrate more on "how he came across" than they do on integrating what he said with what they know from other sources. I have no more insight into what's really going on at the highest levels than anybody else, and have never been well disposed toward the "don't worry about it -- we're handling it" kind of comfort that seems to be in abundant supply.

How can we go into Afghanistan and other terrorist safe harbors without a formal declaration of war against those nations? Aren't we obliged to respect the sovereignty of those governments?

Not necessarily. I don't believe the US is honor-bound to respect the sovereignty of governments that were not freely elected. Whether an Islamic caliphate or a communist politburo or a traditional monarchy, administrations that do not govern with the consent of the governed are dictatorships and their citizens subjects.

However, in the interests of being realistic, I'll say that I don't really expect us to feel free to invade China or Cuba or Saudi Arabia. Some compromise is necessary, and we all recognize that, especially when the dictators do in fact have widespread popular support, as was the case with Khomeini in Iran. (Of course, it seems to me that any dictatorship that claims popular support ought not to be afraid of a free election, but hey: that's just me.)

But I don't think this compromise should necessarily extend to situations in which a populace is held captive by well-armed thugs who usurped authority by force and against whom the impoverished citizens are powerless. The Taliban movement grew out of a group of Islamic student radicals ("Taliban" is Arabic for "student") who took advantage of Afghanistan's weakened condition following a decade of resistance against the Soviets. They marched across the country, picking up supporters as they went, and filled a power vacuum based on empty promises and local shows of force. Utterly unequipped to govern, they allowed the country to slip into economic and social chaos, with even the most basic of services curtailed or eliminated, all the while enforcing cruel and archaic -- and highly questionable as to authenticity -- Islamic law. What is left now is near-starvation, the systematic, officially-sanctioned abuse of women, and the harboring of terrorists who pour money into the ravaged economy. The Taliban control 95% of Afghanistan; the leader of the opposition that controls the remaining 5% was just assassinated by men posing as a television news crew there to interview him. Yet despite the terror inflicted on the population by the Taliban, more than a million people dared to gather to see their last hero buried.

All this by way of saying that the Taliban do not rise to the level of a legitimate sovereign requiring the same respect we show to other countries. On the other hand, that administration is recognized by some other countries in the region, most significantly Pakistan, and that does create some problems for us. It pays to remember that Pakistan has a tested and deliverable atomic bomb. (Partially the result of another whopping US policy fiasco, our failure to follow through on threatened sanctions if they tested their nuclear weapons).

What is so complicated here? Why don't we just go in with a show of force, teach them a lesson and put the fear of God into them?

I'm especially intrigued at the bit of rhetoric that says something along the lines of: "Just send in a few Ranger divisions and a handful of F-16s and we'll give those guys something to worry about."

We'll give them something to worry about? Eighteen of them piled into a handful of airplanes and sat in the cockpits as they flew them straight into buildings. What -- and I mean exactly what -- are we going to give those guys to worry about?

You want to intimidate them by threatening them with death? Earth to America, hello! Read my lips: They. Are. Not. Afraid. Of. Death.

But people who harbor them may be.

What's more important at this point, punishment or prevention?

They're not necessarily separate issues: think "deterrence." Think of punishment not as revenge (although there's nothing wrong with a little righteous revenge) but as deterrence and you see that this is a question that doesn't need to get answered. If the people who did this get away with hit, a monstrous injustice will go unaddressed. But, in addition, a monstrous future injustice becomes more likely.

Do you agree that things have changed and will never be the same again?

I sure hope things have changed and will never be the same.

One of the things that I hope has changed is that we become more willing to exercise prior restraint against potential dangers. Doing that has been difficult for us because the notion of prior restraint runs counter to many of our basic legal precepts. Our preference has always been not to assume, at least officially, that something was going to happen or that someone was going to do something, but to wait until it did and then go after the perpetrators. Relying on assumptions about the future that are unprovable and then acting on them has never been something we were comfortable with, which is why, even though PMS is sometimes used as a defense on behalf of females accused of crimes, we've never locked up a PMS sufferer prior to the commission of a crime.

But now a clear and present danger exists, and this is where the concept of "war" becomes relevant. We are still a nation of laws, and can't give that up without dooming ourselves. But the laws for wartime are different from those of peacetime, and may be applicable even without a formal declaration of war; they might apply if we are defending ourselves from an external enemy. The distinctions between the two concepts presently being debated -- do we pursue terrorists as criminals or military enemies? -- are crucial. When we deal with military enemies we don't use the courts and the due process attendant to criminal prosecutions, including burden-of-proof requirements. My hope is that we can accomplish this without compromising the moral high ground we have claimed in the past.

How is the next assault likely to go down?

Beats me. As I said, I have no more inside knowledge than the next guy on the street. But if I had to guess, I would take several things as strong clues.

The first is that, following our bombing of Libya, which resulted in the death of Muammar Khaddafi's youngest son, there was no retaliation of any kind, which I found very scary, the Colonel not being the kind to lick his wounds and scurry away.

Second, we need to deal with the implications of our single biggest foreign policy failure since Vietnam, our shameful surrender in Iraq. I'm not talking about the Gulf War. The UN was supposed to have the right to inspect Iraqi manufacturing facilities to see if they were producing weapons of mass destruction. When the inspectors showed up, Saddam's Hussein's people refused them entry, citing all kinds of reasons. One was that they didn't want US personnel in their factories and installations. We gave in on that one, but the inspectors still weren't allowed in. So they left.

Third, the FAA has gone so far overboard on airline security that we'll be lucky if a quarter of the fleet is still in the air by year's end. We're even kicking Arab-Americans off of flights just because white Americans don't want them on board. (Not an exaggeration...check news reports from September 21.)

When you factor these situations into a mix that includes many more like them, some very terrible conclusions can be drawn. The most obvious is that we're not going to see any more commercial planes flown into buildings or hijacked or sabotaged. That's become a low percentage play for the terrorists. Instead, the next attack is likely to be one of three types:

1-Nuclear. The least likely, but not impossible. (One of the things that has changed forever is that there is no longer any outrage categorizable as "unthinkable.") A lot of sensationalist news people would have us believe that it is easy to build an atomic bomb "if you have the materials." It's that last phrase that makes the whole statement so laughable. It's like me saying, "I could easily win an Olympic medal, if I just trained." Getting the materials is the hard part, but then it's still not easy to build a conventional atomic bomb. However, it's a lot easier to build an unconventional one. The bomb ("Fat Man") dropped on Nagasaki, technology that forms the basis for current weapons, was an extremely sophisticated device that nobody is going to whip up in his basement. It's also fueled by plutonium, which is very difficult to produce or steal.

But the other bomb, "Little Boy," was so simple and reliable that it wasn't even tested before we dropped it on Hiroshima. The Manhattan Project scientists knew it would work. Interestingly, nobody ever built another one like it, because it was inefficient and wasteful of fuel. That fuel is enriched uranium, much easier to obtain (by stealing; making it privately would be impossible). A Little Boy would be easier to fabricate than a Fat Man, too. How bad would it be?

The media have been reporting that the combination of the power of the two plane crashes into the WTC was equivalent to about a kiloton. This is an absurd number; a kiloton is two million pounds of TNT, one of the most powerful chemical explosives known. The combined weight of the two planes that hit the towers was nowhere near two million pounds, and they were made mostly out of metal. The only thing explosive was the fuel, which weighed a fraction of two million pounds and wasn't as damaging as TNT. Even if you factor in the force of the impact, you don't get anywhere near a kiloton.

The Little Boy we detonated over Hiroshima was about a ten kiloton device. Conservatively speaking, it was probably at least 50 times more powerful than the total effect of the planes hitting the WTC. Were one to go off on a high floor in a Manhattan office building, you could pretty much bank on several neighborhoods being leveled and the entire island of New York and parts of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and New Jersey being uninhabitable for a while. In the right place at the right time, the death toll (both immediate and over the ensuing several months) could hit a million.

Even if the bomb fizzled instead of exploding, it would still do tremendous damage, rendering a good portion of a city uninhabitable because of radiation contamination. In fact, once you have the fuel you don't even need to build an actual atomic bomb. You could just mix the enriched uranium in with a few thousand pounds of conventional explosives and set it off, scattering the nasty stuff for blocks.

2- Airborne chemical: Assuming Iraq or somebody supplies the stuff, absurdly simple. Load it up onto a small plane (forget crop dusters, which won't work well with powdery substances) and release it over Chicago and it would be like a nuclear bomb but without hurting any property. "Inhalation anthrax" occurs following exposure to anthrax spores that become aerosolized and inhaled. Early symptoms of inhalation anthrax mimic the flu and include malaise, fever, cough and chest discomfort. This is known as the prodormal phase. After a brief period of recovery, victims will develop "severe respiratory distress." Untreated or treated too late, inhalation anthrax is almost certainly fatal. Anthrax infection has an incubation period of approximately seven days or less.

Interestingly, anthrax is a bacterial infection. It can be vaccinated against. It can also be treated with commonly available antibiotics, but only if you catch it in the prodormal stage. Of course, trying to treat three or four hundred thousand people can be tough on the local supply of antibiotics.

Want to know what "severe respiratory distress" is like? Blow all of the breath out of your lungs and hold it. Don't breathe back in. At the point where you feel like your lungs are about to explode, imagine that you're completely unable to take a breath. Ever. Then you die.

3- Waterborne chemical: Again, a question of just getting the stuff. Then, if you have a buddy in the local water treatment plant, you're in. Better yet, have a buddy at the Coca-Cola bottling plant. That way, instead of taking out just a city, you can knock out a region. And the longer the incubation period, the more people you can kill before anybody figures out what's going on.

One more thought: I believe it entirely possible that, unless they're put out of business, Islamic terrorists will attack the governments of Arab nations whom they believe have strayed from the faith and are therefore traitors to Islam. Bin Ladn said, "We hear no denunciation...from the hereditary rulers...The least that can be said about those hypocrites is that they are apostates who followed the wrong path." Apostasy is defined as a total departure or desertion from one's religion; under Islamic law it is punishable by death.

Weren't the terrorists even more sophisticated than we're being told? Not only did they have to know how to fly those planes, they had to know how to work the navigational systems.

Not at all. A $129 hand-held GPS receiver from Wal-Mart would have told them everything they needed, including which direction to fly, time and distance remaining, and altitude. The GPS has enough precision to guide them to an individual window in an office building, and isn't much more complicated to operate than a cell phone.

Now that some time has passed, do you still feel the FAA is all wet with respect to airline security?

Worse than all wet; they're getting close to wrecking the industry. A lot of people who use big-city airports and who don't have a very good reason to fly are canceling or not booking because security restrictions have gone completely off the deep end. (I wasn't kidding about corkscrews, above, and now it's nail clippers at LAX as well. I know commandos who can kill you with a credit card but those nail clippers, well: in the wrong hands they could be weapons of mass destruction.) There will never be another peaceful hijacking in this country, which used to be a kind of tradition. Now, anybody who sneezes in the wrong direction is going to get fifteen guys with hero complexes stomping him to a bloody pulp. Meanwhile, the airlines are cutting schedules and laying off workers, which will mean fewer scheduled flights and more inconvenience, so travelers will find other means and thereby hurt the industry even worse, which will then mean fewer scheduled flights and even more layoffs, etc.

Who do you think you are, anyway? What is the source of your knowledge, what credentials do you have and what qualifies you to express these opinions? Are you in the aviation business?

I hold a commercial pilot's license and wrote a novel about an airline terrorist, but those are frankly beside the point. I have no special credentials, no unique qualifications and no inside knowledge of any kind. (All the information I cited is available to the general public from a variety of sources.) The only special expertise I possess is the ability to proceed logically from premises to conclusions, but both my perception of those premises and the threads I choose to follow therefrom are highly colored by my particular worldview and biases.

How can Osama bin Ladn issue a "fatwah" when he is not a priest?

His organization has several departments that report directly to him. One is for religious affairs, and is staffed with high-ranking priests. That's where the fatwah originated, at his direction.

See also an essay on religious fanaticism.

You overplayed the suicide aspect. Our own tradition is full of suicide missions and people willing to die for causes they believe in. One of the most memorable heroes in the movie "U-571" is a submariner who purposely drowns himself in order to close a valve and save his shipmates. What makes Islamic terrorists so different?

That's a very good point. Willingness to die for a cause is by no means uniquely Islamic and, again, is not a sign that fundamentalist extremists are deranged. Still, there are some key differences. For one, I can't off-hand think of an instance of a "western" mission-oriented suicide in which the point was to take lives rather than save them (jumping on grenades, steering damaged planes away from populated areas, etc.). What we tend to refer to as "suicide missions" generally involves great personal risk but not certain death. Another difference is that Islamic zealots under the thumb of charismatic religious leaders who guarantee safe passage to heaven are more easily convinced to undertake suicide missions for nebulous goals. Of course, they don't think they're nebulous, but you're not going to find too many Americans turning themselves into human bombs to inflict damage on a perceived enemy during peacetime. There's an enormous difference between jumping on a grenade to save your buddies and taking down an office building full of innocent civilians.

These philosophical discursions are beside the point, though. What's important is that a) there are plenty of people under the sway of Islamic extremist leaders who are ready to die in order to commit violent acts (which tells you something about the intensity of their conviction, how much they hate us, and how thoroughly indoctrinated they are; in the US we are taught to question authority and to engage in open debate, but religious extremists are taught to obey without question), b) in addition to committing their own lives, religious zealots are perfectly happy to commit the lives of thousands of others, civilians or otherwise, and, c) from a tactical response point of view, it's very difficult to stop people who are deeply committed to getting killed from carrying out their missions.

Were the US bombings of Libya and Iraq terrorist operations?

Yes. But that doesn't necessarily make it a bad thing. See the next question.

Why do you continue to use the word "terrorist" when you yourself admit that you can't define it? Does our inability to define it in a way that "properly" labels good guys vs. bad guys tell us something important about the concept?

You are absolutely correct in implying that the difficulty in defining "terrorist" is more than an abstract semantic problem; it goes to the very heart of the issues facing us. Right now, I think the way the term is used is as follows:

A terrorist is someone who commits a violent act on behalf of a cause you don't agree with.

However, having thought about little else since 9/11, I think I finally understand the conundrum that is at the heart of the definition problem, and which leads me to propose a definition that fits all the facts.

The problem is that the word "terrorism" has a negative connotation: "Terrorism is a bad thing." Now that might sound blindingly obvious but it really isn't, because if we strip the word of its inherent negativity and substitute a value-neutral definition, we might get closer to what it is that bothers us:

Terrorism is a politically motivated act of violence intended to instill fear as opposed to achieve a military objective.

Note that this definition does not automatically label terrorism as bad. It allows for the possibility of justified terrorism, thereby separating the judgment of the act from the act itself. For example, the 9/11 attacks were definitely terrorism, because they were intended to instill fear in our population. When the US bombed Iraq and Libya, that was terrorism, too -- the point was to instill fear and perhaps incite an overthrow of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Khaddafi -- but from our perspective it was justifiable terrorism.

Same thing with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The point of dropping the atomic bomb was to terrorize the Japanese population into surrendering so we wouldn't have to mount an invasion. If you believe that dropping those bombs saved many thousands of American lives, you believe it was the right thing to do. But it was still terrorism, because the point was to scare the hell out of people. Neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki had any military value, and no soldiers were killed, only civilians.

When you agree with the cause, you call a terrorist a "freedom fighter." If you don't, you call him a terrorist. It's all a matter of perspective, but one overriding concept lingers: If someone commits violence against us, it doesn't matter if his cause is just. We have the right to defend ourselves, to retaliate, and to prevent recurrences.

Where are we heading, in a larger sense beyond individual attacks?

What I worry about most is the erosion of democracy as a result of fear.

Democracy is at risk because of the increasing polarization between secular, consumerist capitalism on the one hand and fundamentalist, religious fanaticism on the other. Capitalism is a mindless beast that would happily mow down any moral and ethical barriers it could get away with in pursuit of profit (and in good economic times we let it get away with a lot), and which would like nothing better than to be in political as well as economic control. Increasing globalization accords increasing power to businesses, which can freely trample human rights overseas by spreading around enough money and which have little vested interest in whether the governments they deal with are democratic or not.

Fundamentalist religious movements view secular consumerism as evil because they despise the value system attendant to it, but they see democracy as an even more direct and immediate danger, because where the people govern, the clergy cannot. The threat to their power base is clear. When clergy of any denomination* get control of a government, the last thing they want or need is a highly-educated populace that likes to ask questions, engage in open debate and challenge authority. These are basic benefits in a system of government in which the people get to choose who leads them, but that's not how religious leadership works.

What we end up with is these two huge forces fighting for control of the world, and neither one of them has any use for democracy. As international business conglomerates backed up by their governments continue to irritate religious fundamentalists, more terror attacks will occur. When that happens, polls show more and more Americans answering Yes when asked, "Would you be willing to give up a little of your personal freedom for much greater security?" We then let the military dogs loose and encourage the building of more McDonald's outlets overseas, which irritates the clergy even more and results in more terror, more frightened Americans and an even greater willingness to compromise civil liberties and, inevitably, democracy itself, because whenever you give up some of your freedom, you have to give it up to somebody or something else. That's usually the government, and when government infringes on personal freedoms, democracy starts to wither.

This is something the ACLU understands, and they've taken a lot of grief for it, especially when they undertake lawsuits that seem completely insane and completely on the wrong side of righteousness. The thing is, ACLU lawyers know that the end of democracy will not come about in a single conflagration but slowly, almost invisibly, as the result of an accumulation of tiny bites in its flanks over time. Establish a precedent of even a tiny infringement of freedom and it's very difficult to reverse. I do not want a policeman to have the right to pull me over without probable cause, because then he'll be able to do it just because I'm black or Jewish or Arab or because he had a bad day and just felt like it. You can't always bank on unfettered authorities harassing only the "right" suspects.

(* This condition is by no means unique to Islam. Consider the Inquisition in Europe to see what evils can be wrought when priests run the government. Thousands of people were systematically tortured and burned alive because they professed the wrong faith. A man named William Tyndale was strangled in a public ceremony because he translated the Bible into English, which was considered a crime because the priesthood didn't want ordinary people to be able to read it without clerical assistance.)

Isn't all this national unity wonderful?

Oh, yeah, it's beautiful, man. I give it two more weeks.

My wife and I flew out of LAX today (9/25). At the ticket counter, after much discussion between two airline reps who clearly had no set policy, they made her check her athletic bag, which was the same size and half the weight of the carry-on I was allowed to keep. We were unable to figure out why some passengers had to take their checked luggage through an x-ray station and other didn't. In the waiting lounge at the gate, there were dozens of people with roll-along suitcases to be carried on, several times the size of the athletic bag we had to check. Same airline, same destination.

Nearly every bag going through the x-ray machine involved some discussion between the security agent and the supervisor. About half were sent through again or opened and searched. This wasn't too bad when we were there, which was before 6:00 am. Can't imagine what it was like an hour or two later. Admittedly, LAX is the worst off all US airports right now (nail clippers...don't even get me started), but it isn't easy anywhere.

Business people who fly every week out of major airports are taking useless, unproductive hours out of their day. Some people are afraid to fly. Some people just dread having to go through an airport. Both are seeking alternatives, which drops airplane yields, so the airlines cut back schedules, which makes it even more difficult to fly, which keeps more people away, etc.

Changed my mind; I give it one more week. Tops.

And the surge of patriotism, too?

What surge might that be?

I thought patriotism was about placing yourself in harm's way in defense of your country, fighting for the values upon which your nation was based, participating actively in determining the direction of the country, doing something meaningful to contribute to the perpetuation of a nation to which you owe a profound debt. I thought patriotism was about putting your money where your mouth is

The so-called "patriotism" we're being treated to seems to consist largely of displaying flags on cars, singing "God Bless America" while holding hands and writing editorials about how great America is. If that's all it takes to be considered patriotic, hell, that's easier than picking your nose, so why all the news coverage?

What is it about Islam that pushes people to such extremes? What is Islam, anyway?

[UNFINISHED] Well. About time somebody got around to asking this question. Much ridicule has been hurled at people who suggest trying to understand our enemy but, as stated above, we'll misunderstand him at our peril.

A bit of historical perspective (my interpretation only; a more factual description follows). Way back when, Judaism became the first of the world's great monotheistic religions. This was expressed in the most important Jewish prayer, the Shema, which is recited today exactly as it was in the beginning: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One." There is only one God, period. This ran completely counter to every prior religion, all of which (Roman, Greek, Sumerian, Native American, Aztec, etc.) consisted of pantheons of lesser and greater gods.

Judaism also sought to bring some order to the practice of religion, by prescribing a set of behaviors, adherence to which defined a holy life. A number of these were set down in the Pentateuch, the original five books of Moses that form the core of the Old Testament. Subsequent generations of Jews piled on a huge number of additional practices that greatly expanded the original rules. There are thousands of them; dietary laws alone fill many volumes. From one simple biblical directive alone -- "Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother's milk" -- a tidal wave of corollary practices arose that forbid the mixing of meat and dairy products to such an elaborate extent that a kosher Jewish home has separate sets of silverware and dishes for meat and dairy. It is even possible to make heretofore non-Kosher utensils temporarily Kosher (as when dining in a hotel) by boiling them in water along with a stone.

The rules are extensive, complex and occasionally ambiguous or contradictory, but the point is clear: If you do all of these things, you're living right and will find favor in the eyes of God. That nearly all of these rules arose from man and not the bible is not often discussed, and there's a reason for that. It relates to the persecution of the Jews that has hounded them all through history. Frequently without a homeland, with many sites and occupations forbidden to them, usually on the move, Jews haven't had the benefit of physical anchors to ground them religiously. Traditions were the only things they could take with them wherever they went. All those habits and minutely specified behaviors defined them as a people and bound them together. The routines took on an importance of their own: no matter what was going on around you, so long as you behaved according to the rules, you were a good Jew. It also meant full employment for the high priests of Judaism, because no mere mortal could keep all of that stuff straight, nor could he resolve disputes as to interpretation when conflicts arose.

And then along came Jesus Christ, who shattered many of these deeply held beliefs. Jesus preached that a lifetime of adherence to all the minutiae of Jewish law was meaningless if your heart wasn't in the right place. In fact, a heart in the right place was about all that really counted in the first place: Believe that he rose from the dead and treat others as you yourself would be treated, and you pretty much had it knocked. All else was details. He even went so far as to defend himself against charges of violating Jewish law by declaring that his appearance on earth essentially fulfilled all those laws, and that the covenants that had created them were no longer in effect.

It was that more than anything that got the Pharisees and Sadducees in such a dither, because without all those rules to keep straight, who needed priests? Inevitably, Christians evolved their own set of rules that were never laid down in the bible (meatless Fridays, celibate priests, etc.) but the essential point remained the same: Believe, and you'd be saved.

Something else a little strange occurred as well, though, and that is that subsequent generations of Christians muddied the monotheistic waters somewhat. The Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost continues to cause confusion to this very day. Its very meaning is hotly debated. Is it just three different ways of looking at the same thing? Many Christian scholars aver fervently that it is not, and treating it as such is missing the whole point. I wouldn't presume to try to straighten this out, but when Christians assert that there is no confusion at all and the meaning is quite clear, there's a little wishful thinking going on. The matter gets even more puzzling by the consideration of Mary-worship. Praying directly to the mother of Jesus is quite common; does it imply yet another aspect of the Godhead? Does it even really matter? To Christians, probably not, but now let's talk about Islam.

In relation to the foregoing, Islam does two things. First, it solidly brings monotheism back to the forefront of religion by declaring that there is one God, Allah, in only one form. Allah has no sons and no parents, no relatives or earthly surrogates whatsoever. (Chapter 12: "He begets not, nor is He begotten, and none is like him.") As respectful of other religions as Islam declares itself to be, it nevertheless harshly criticizes the deification of Jesus and considers it to be about the most colossal blunder in the history of the race. How can Jesus possibly be considered the Lord when he is presented as an entity separate from the real God, the father? Jesus was a man, for heaven's sake; how can you worship a man as a god? (In my reading of the Gospels, I don't recall Jesus himself ever saying anything different. When asked if he was the son of God, he said, "I am the Son of man." When asked directly if he was God, he replied, "It is you who say I am." Why is it that we insist on putting words in the mouths of those whose words we most revere?) There is only one God, and anything that confuses that issue completely misses the point. Jesus was a prophet, a great one, just as Muhammad was, but that's it. Calling him the son of God is to fall prey to one of the four kinds of polytheism the Qu'ran specifically condemns. (The others are belief in the plurality of gods or of persons in the Godhead, belief that other things besides God possess the perfect attributes of a divinity, and the belief that others may do things ascribable only to the Divine Being.)

The Qu'ran is so relentlessly insistent on this point that it demands equal treatment of all men and women (more about women later) because unequal treatment would imply that someone is closer to being God than someone else, and nobody gets to be even remotely godlike in Islam. It expressly forbids revering men of accomplishment, treating it as a "disease" to which otherwise monotheistic religions are prone: "They have taken their doctors of law and their monks for lords besides God."

When the question arises as to how closely extreme Islamic fundamentalism hews to the Qu'ran, this is a subject worth exploring. Fundamentalists marching around carrying placards with Osama bin Ladn's picture on it would seem to be in direct and serious violation of Qu'ranic prohibitions against mortal inequality. Furthermore, the Prophet Muhammad condemned Jews and Christians for taking their learned men as lords, citing as evidence that those people blindly followed what those learned men said. Surely that is exactly what we're seeing when men such as bin Ladn can convince followers to undertake suicide missions. As for "jihad," again the Qu'ran is quite specific: war or force may be undertaken only for self-defense. Clearly, though, this is open to broad interpretation; does force against "oppression" constitute self-defense? How about defending the religion rather than one's self?

The other thing Islam does is return to the prescriptive form of religious behavior. The Qu'ran is loaded with the same kinds of rules as the Old Testament: follow them and you're A-OK. One thing the Qu'ran does which the Old and New Testaments don't is make (or at least attempt) a clear distinction between allegoric and literal narrative. It tells you when to take its words exactly as written and when to search beneath parable to uncover truth. There is no quarter left for debate. Not only that, but Islam is very specific in saying that mere belief is not enough. "O you who believe! Believe in God and His Apostle" (4:136) is interpreted to mean that belief in anything is meaningless unless that belief is the basis for some action.

Which brings us to the heart of fundamentalism. The Qu'ran is so specific that there is little room for interpretation. Fundamentalists therefore believe that any attempt at interpretation or compromise is blasphemy; you're either on the boat or you're off of it. It is worth pointing out at this point that the Qu'ran claims to be the final judge of all religions, basing this finality on its perfection which, by definition, cannot be improved upon. This is why Muhammad is referred to as "the last Prophet." (It seems that if Muslims are going to hate anybody, it ought to be Mormons, since "latter day saints" is an intrinsically blasphemous phrase.)

You might think this on-the-boat-or-off attitude would be true of Judeo-Christianity, too, but even the most diehard fundamentalists in those religions understand that different times demand different approaches, which is why we don't stone adulterers to death or do any of a hundred other horribly brutal things, like keep slaves, which the bible condones. Those among us who are believers don't even necessarily hold the Ten Commandments sacred. Honoring the Sabbath and keeping it holy? Not bearing false witness, or coveting your neighbor's wife? Happens all the time, even among priests. As for "Thou shalt not kill," there's not much sense even discussing that one, since the bible itself provides plenty of examples where it's not only okay to kill, it's prescribed. (Check out the penalty for adultery, as just one example.)

The point here is not to criticize how we practice Judeo-Christianity. Quite the contrary: How we approach things pragmatically is a strength and a virtue, and shows up the danger of strict interpretation and blind adherence, which should offend the sensibilities of any thinking person, believer or not.

We also shouldn't think that there are no controversies in Islam. There are plenty. The Qu'ran itself is the subject of debate, for example on the theory of abrogation, which relates to whether certain passages contradict others. There is also major disagreement over the proper role and treatment of women. The Qu'ran states clearly that post-pubescent women should be covered -- primarily to avoid tempting men into illicit extra-marital behaviors -- "especially the bosom," but that the hands and face may be uncovered. Leads one to wonder why we see Islamic religious police beating women in the streets for partially uncovering their faces, if everybody is reading from the same Qu'ran. Also makes you wonder why the leading spokesperson for the Islamic PLO is a women, who appears on television dressed in business clothes and smoking a cigarette.

Where Christianity makes a clear distinction between religious leadership and lay government ("Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's..."), the Qu'ran does the opposite, directing that municipal administration should be carried out by Islamic priests (see caliphate, previously).


* * *

And, finally, an interview of Zbigniew Brzezinski in Le Nouvel Observateur (France), Jan 15-21, 1998, p. 76 (There are at least two editions of this magazine; with the perhaps sole exception of the Library of Congress, the version sent to the United States is shorter than the French version, and the Brzezinski interview was not included in it.)

Q: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs ["From the Shadows"], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

B: It isn't quite that. We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn't believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don't regret anything today?

B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [intégrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Q: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated: Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today.

B: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn't a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.

(Translated from the French by Bill Blum Author, "Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II" and "Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower.")

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