Did ‘Threat Fatigue’ Lull Us Into Denial Of Another 9/11?

Suddenly, after a long period of denial and scoffing, people are talking about the possibility again. Suddenly, the phrases “another 9/11″ and “the next 9/11″ are in the air, on the airwaves. For a long time, one felt there was an almost superstitious reluctance to speak of it or even mention it, unless it was to scoff at the “boy who cried wolf” color-coded terror warnings. Suddenly, the very passage of time-the nearly three years that have passed since 9/11-has become a fact to be wondered at, factored in, as we finally confront the question of how long our immunity from a repetition will last, as well as whether it can be prevented, and how things will change if it does happen.

I think the recent flap over the “election-postponement” proposal brought this question to the fore, although I swear I’d begun writing this column before that bit of symptomatic paranoia erupted. I’d begun writing about a chilling and disturbing essay I’d read by Victor Davis Hanson called “Another 9/11: The Awful Response That We Dare Not Speak About,” an essay that appeared on July 6. The election-postponement flap broke out on July 11, when Newsweek went online with Michael Isikoff’s eye-opening dispatch.

Another 9/11? For a long time, nobody wanted to talk about it aloud, but there are only two alternatives, aren’t there? You believe it’s likely to happen in your lifetime, or you believe it won’t. Mr. Hanson believes that we know, on some level, that it’s likely to happen, but that we’ve buried thoughts of it in layers of denial. And that we’re suffering from what someone called “threat fatigue,” that we, in effect, sleepwalk toward Ground Zero II with what Hanson calls a “scary mood of fatalism.”

Some decry the fact that we have been warned about its “inevitability” so many times that the warnings themselves have become part of the apparatus of denial. It’s easy to mock the color codes and the Keystone Cops impression our Homeland Security guardians give us. But the moral of “the boy who cried wolf,” you’ll recall, is that there really was a wolf.

I’m not sure living in a state of denial is always deplorable. I’ve generally been a believer in the underappreciated, salutary, self-preservational uses of a little harmless denial, but Mr. Hanson makes a case that this kind of denial-a denial of the Fire Next Time, you might say-is not harmless. He argues that facing the possibility, thinking about precisely how we’d react-and telling other nations how we’d react-might be an unexploited deterrent measure against such an attack. One that might do a lot more than an increase in skilled airport screening, say. Not a guarantee of safety, but a means of increasing the chance of intercepting a planned attack at its origins.

I’ll get further into this in a moment, but just as I was beginning to write something commenting on Mr. Hanson’s strategic proposals, the whole election-postponement controversy broke out and put the prospect of another 9/11 in our faces. And perhaps-even if it’s a red herring-disrupted the “scary mood of fatalism” about the prospect. Broke the silence momentarily, anyway.

So I think the election-postponement flap deserves some further consideration, especially because-in tracking some of the reaction/debate in the blogosphere-I’d suggest some Kerry supporters have fallen into what could be a self-destructive trap in their reaction to it.

For those who haven’t followed the convolutions of this controversy, it began with the Sunday, July 11, online release of a Newsweek report by Michael Isikoff that an official at what he called “the newly created U.S. Election Assistance Commission” had asked Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge to ask the Justice Department to “analyze what legal steps would be needed to permit the postponement of the election were an attack to take place.”

This came at the end of a week that featured a Homeland Security press conference at which Tom Ridge warned that Al Qaeda’s plans to disrupt the U.S. electoral process were “moving forward”; a period in which we learned that “bio-terror antidotes” were being flown to the two convention cities.

The language in Mr. Isikoff’s report seemed to imply postponement of the entire election, although later discussion of the issue elsewhere included questions about whether such postponements might apply only to those states that were actually hit by terrorist attacks.

In any case-and somewhat understandably, considering the surreptitious way in which the postponement option seems to have surfaced-all heck broke loose, you might say, with some on the paranoid end of the spectrum imagining a Bush Putsch of a Reichstag Fire nature (if it seemed they might lose). One blog commentator even suggested that he “wouldn’t put it past” the Bush campaign to perpetrate a car bombing (and presumably the mass murder ensuing) if they wanted a big enough excuse to cancel the elections.

Other, more moderate leftists denounced it on more moderate grounds, and there are certainly better and worse ways of doing it. But only a few on the left seemed to realize this might be an important opportunity that the Kerry campaign should seize on, if it wants to avoid what you might call a “nuclear Florida.”

Because, as some commentators and bloggers have pointed out, the likelihood is that a terror attack will hit a large city such as N.Y., Chicago or Los Angeles. And if millions in one or more of those locations are prevented from voting on Election Day by such an attack, it could easily throw the election to George W. Bush in a close race. Those are big electoral states and heavily Democratic cities-ones that John Kerry would otherwise be able to count on. Mr. Kerry should be the one calling for the ability to postpone elections there under carefully circumscribed conditions, right?

Wouldn’t it make sense, with all the chatter from the government about the likelihood of a terror attack attempting to disrupt the elections, á la Spain, for the Kerry camp to come up with a proposal they felt would be a way of preserving their voters’ rights-all voters’ rights-in case of an attack?

It would make sense for both camps, since nobody really knows how an attack will play itself out politically, to come to some agreement about how to handle such a situation. This is more than hanging chads; this is another 9/11 we’re talking about. (A New York Times editorial on July 17 denounced the idea of postponing “the” election but, when it came to individual states, acceded to the notion that polling hours could be “extended,” leaving one to wonder if keeping the polls open till midnight, say, would be an adequate response to a “dirty bomb” which required the evacuation of the entire city.)

Still, I can understand the frisson of paranoia that any talk of postponement or, as it was spun in some circles, “cancellation” of the election would entail, since I’d once found myself at the epicenter of an imperfect storm of paranoia on this subject as a young reporter. I was reminded of that episode by David Greenberg’s account of it in his excellent study Nixon’s Shadow.

Back in 1970, when I was a staff writer for The Village Voice , a cab driver from Staten Island happened to mention to me a strange story in The Staten Island Advance that hadn’t appeared anywhere else in the New York media. When I tracked it down, it was just three or four paragraphs, as I recall.

As David Greenberg describes the Advance item, the Nixon administration “had asked the RAND Corporation, a defense-industry think tank, to study whether ‘rebellious factions using force or bomb threats would make it unsafe to conduct an election’ and how the president might respond.” The implication: cancellation.

I spent a lot of time trying, inconclusively, to see if the story was factually based or a fabrication; I reported official denials from the RAND Corporation and the Nixon administration, but I also, as Mr. Greenberg puts it, “playfully pointed out that they would surely deny it if it were true. Rosenbaum added that the country would just have to wait until 1972 to see.”

But this (relatively) nuanced treatment of the story (the Voice headline deadpanned: “The ’72 Election May Be Held as Scheduled”) was soon jettisoned in the paranoia-thick atmosphere of the time. “Some treated the tale as established fact … the rumor spread fast and took on sinister connotations,” Mr. Greenberg reports. Pat Moynihan, then a Nixon appointee, made a speech in which “he said he knew the story had reached ‘just about every campus in the nation’ .… Moynihan reassured his audience that the report was ‘not so,’ but then either playing for a laugh or falling victim himself to the pervasive mistrust, he added: ‘or at least I think that it is not so.’” And, as Mr. Greenberg adds, “Given that a few years later the world would learn of Nixon’s very real tampering with the 1972 election, Rosenbaum’s argument [that there was a metaphoric if not factual basis for the RAND Corporation rumor] had a certain logic.”

In fact, I still don’t know what to make of the RAND Corporation story. Later, after the Pentagon Papers came out, I thought that the story might have originated in some second- or thirdhand way from Daniel Ellsberg, who’d worked at RAND. I was somewhat more dubious about a subsequent elaboration of the election-cancellation scenario that took the form of an alleged memo written by a Spiro Agnew aide that was printed in Scanlan’s magazine. I think I came to suspect the brilliant satirist and prankster Paul Krassner of having something to do with it, but as Mr. Greenberg suggests, it was a case-when you looked at it through the lens of the crazed and vicious kidnap and blackmail schemes actually envisioned by Nixon’s Plumbers-where the paranoia “had a certain logic.”

Does paranoia about the recent election-postponement trial balloon have “a certain logic” as well, or is it merely a symptom of “pervasive mistrust”? Perhaps both, if you construe it as a particularly devious trap for Kerry supporters. Getting them to rush to denounce any such proposal coming from a Bush source- even if a partial election postponement is most likely something that would be to John Kerry’s advantage -could be a devious Bush ploy, I suppose, though I doubt they’re that clever.

Just this week, I had a fascinating phone conversation with Daniel Ellsberg himself, who told me that he had been copying the Pentagon Papers while working at RAND back in 1970. He said that he’d heard nothing about election postponement at RAND and that he wasn’t the source of the rumor, but he did recall that Spiro Agnew had in fact been briefed at the RAND Corporation some time in 1970 (he believed in the summer)-an interesting fact to add to the mix.

As far as the current rumor, Mr. Ellsberg argues that talk of election postponements and the like is designed to shape the implications that will be drawn from a putative Al Qaeda election-eve terror attack (a possibility he doesn’t at all discount).

Mr. Ellsberg believes that the Bush administration is trying to spin such an attack as Osama bin Laden’s attempt to defeat Mr. Bush and elect Mr. Kerry. And that floating the possibility of postponement of the election is a way of preparing the nation for harsher deprivations of civil liberties in the aftermath of such an attack.

So, while he sees the downside of such talk, Mr. Ellsberg told me he agrees that it’s better to know -and be able to argue about-what kind of response is planned, what’s being planned for civil liberties and civil society in the aftermath of an attack. And that, if not Mr. Kerry himself, Congress should call for as much debate as possible before an attack.

In this sense, at least, he seems to agree with Mr. Hanson that silence is not the solution.

Regardless of which side it might or might not help, the consequences of “another 9/11″ will be so grave for the kind of society we live in that it would seem to be to everyone’s advantage to have a public discussion of such issues.

I don’t have any ready answers, and some might say such discussion invites attack, but a lack of discussion would make such an attack, should it come, even more successful in achieving its aim of deeply disruptive chaos. So it’s a lose-lose proposition, I guess, but I’d choose openness over silence.

Still: postponement of the election? It’s further evidence that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Not even in Florida. At first, every fiber of one’s brain and being rebels against the idea-one man’s postponement is another man’s coup. But it seems to me the best way to avoid this becoming the subject of paranoid fantasy by right and left is to discuss the options. Mr. Hanson’s column is a sobering invitation to begin discussing what happens if there is another 9/11, and what measures might be taken to prevent it.

I’ve found Mr. Hanson to be a provocative writer. He’s an unusual combination: a classicist and military historian, author of The Soul of Battle and Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (the piece I’m discussing here-”Another 9/11: The Awful Response That We Dare Not Speak About”-can be found in the archives on his Web site, http://www.victorhanson.com). The piece first appeared in National Review Online, but it’s not necessarily a partisan document. And even if it were, I would hope that liberals would read and respond to it. I’d like to read liberal and left ideas about responding to “another 9/11″ that go beyond “root cause” rhetoric. The root causes are not going to be cured by Election Day. That’s why I think it should, or could be, the most important question in the Presidential debates. Not just who should be blamed, but what we should do. I’d like to hear both Mr. Bush’s and Mr. Kerry’s responses. Another debate question I think needs to be asked if no agreement is reached by both campaigns before then: “Under what circumstances should the election in one or more states be postponed in the event of an election eve attack of 9/11 magnitude?”

On such matters, Mr. Hanson-though he may be a classicist-is also what you might call a brutal realist, and perhaps what he has to say is worth listening to in this city of Ground Zero, which remains the chief target of Zero Plus One.

Not only do we maintain a willed state of denial about the inevitability of another 9/11, says Mr. Hanson, but “very few talk about what we should do post-facto if the promised disaster actually transpires. This is a surprising lapse if one believes an understood response helps in advance to create deterrence.”

The logic of deterrence during the Cold War, which came to be called Mutually Assured Destruction-a logic which is indefensible and yet worked-called for each side to make clear an “understood response”: that the consequences of a nuclear first strike of any kind, however limited, wouldn’t be “proportional” but would involve “massive retaliation” on population centers as well as military targets. Especially on population centers: People forget that the “doves” in the nuclear-strategy debates favored pledging to destroy entire cities to make any kind of nuclear war “unthinkable”; the hawks’ more limited “proportional response” was denounced as making actual nuclear war more likely to happen.

Mr. Hanson points out that the task of deterrence is one that will face whoever is elected President in the election of 2004. An attack could happen to President Kerry as easily as Bush.

And then he asks the Big Question, the one nobody wants to talk about: How, if at all, do we retaliate? Mr. Hanson suggests, caustically, that we have “given the fatal impression that we would grunt a few times, flip the channel, and then do nothing after a repeat of September 11.”

What he suggests is an answer to the problem of deterring terrorists-who, it’s been said, “have no return address” to strike back at. (The Taliban ruling Afghanistan and harboring Al Qaeda were an exception.) The next 9/11 is likely to come from a group whose members owe no formal allegiance to any particular state.

Mr. Hanson offers his solution: Whoever is President should make clear now, to those nations that are found to have harbored those responsible for 9/11 Part II, exactly what will happen to them. Our “understood response.” Not total obliteration, but a list of targets that would be destroyed if we suffered mass murder again. It would be a powerful incentive, Mr. Hanson suggests, for such nations to crack down on potential perpetrators if we make it clear that we would no longer find excuses-as we did for the Saudi government-if, say, 15 9/11-type perpetrators are found to have been sheltered there. (On the other hand, what if the perpetrators turn out to be based not in the Middle East, but in the homeland of an ally such as England?)

Mr. Hanson’s tone suggests he is not happy to make such a suggestion, that he sees it as a grim necessity that-so far as we, the public know-has been inexcusably neglected. Is it possible, one wonders, that such Hanson-like lists of consequences have been made known in secret? Perhaps Mr. Kerry should get that national-security briefing he’s been too busy for and ask that question and make it the subject of a salutary public debate.

Articulating retaliatory options before “another 9/11″ is necessary to full deterrence, Mr. Hanson argues. A grim necessity, he asserts, because he believes “the next 9/11″ won’t just be another 9/11, but something tragically, disastrously debilitating for our civilization: “A watershed event where the tragic choices in responding would entail only ‘bad’ and ‘much worse.’”

And he concludes by saying that if we do nothing and “accept that death sentence” of the next 9/11, it will be “the sure end of our civilization as we know it.”

Agree or disagree with his column, he makes a powerful case that we should be talking and debating such things.

If the candidates themselves don’t address it, those who ask the questions at the Presidential debates should hold their feet to the fire. The Fire Next Time.