The old Middle Eastern story: A man learns that he will die if he stays in Samarra. He flees to some distant city, then is shocked to see Death in the marketplace. Death is surprised too, and asks him, “Did I not have an appointment with you in Samarra?”
We had our appointment on 9/11. The report of the 9/11 commission is an effort to discover who penciled it in our calendars, and how we might avoid the next appointment.
There is something odd about the whole enterprise, a postprandial, men-with-their-brandies, Joseph Conrad air that we have not yet earned. Shouldn’t we concern ourselves with nailing down the details after the war is over? Winners and losers have the luxury of reminiscence, not combatants.
Yet this is a democratic age, in which not only elections but climates of opinion are determined by voting and polling. It is also a media age, when coverage is continuous and omnipresent and the press honors no restraint but its own stupidity. We cannot pick our eras. Since commissions will happen, we must hope for good ones.
The commission recommends that we reorganize our intelligence bureaucracies. The C.I.A. and the F.B.I. are like warring Greek city-states. We need one Alexander the Great to oversee them. The United States did something similar at the dawn of the Cold War, when it took two cabinet departments that dated back to the 1790’s-the Department of War and the Department of the Navy-and joined them together in the Department of Defense. No one (outside of an old Navy family) would quarrel with that decision.
But reorganization alone is never the complete solution. The new super-organization has to have the right mission, and an esprit de corps. The best box in the world is no good if it’s empty.
We can take a lesson from one of the successes of our current balkanized system. Al Qaeda’s big idea, before 9/11, had been to launch an attack at the turn of the millennium. It unraveled in December 1999 when Ahmed Ressam, one of the key agents, was stopped trying to enter the country from Canada at Port Angeles, Wash. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men were on a state of heightened alertness then. But that isn’t why Ahmed Ressam was stopped. The border guard who examined him thought he looked nervous; she suspected he was smuggling drugs. Plans are fine; skill, duty and luck can be better.
Maybe the most sobering statement to come out of the 9/11 commission was made by chairman Thomas Kean: “Every expert with whom we spoke told us an attack of even greater magnitude [than 9/11] is now possible and even probable.” That is bad to hear, which means it is good (because it is necessary) to hear.
The great anthrax scare was a premonition of more to come. Everyone marveled at the low-tech character of 9/11: so many dead, from box cutters and airliners. Suppose your delivery system could be as simple as an envelope?
The PlayStation appearance of the two Iraq wars on television paints a deceptive picture of battle. The occupation of Iraq is more like battle, although it has been a relatively small battle, in terms of casualties. Most wars are long; the victors take a beating, along with the vanquished. Ulysses Grant lost 5,000 men in an hour at Cold Harbor, when he was squeezing Robert E. Lee like an anaconda. The U.S.S. Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine after it had delivered the atomic bomb to its launch site. It isn’t over until it’s over, and sometimes it isn’t over then. The Terror War is a war against all of us; we have all been drafted. We are in uniform at work, in the subway or flying to Orlando.
Our only consolation is that we probably already know this. Daily life and daily spectacles, from the Tour de France to political conventions, distract us. But the world changed three years ago. The next horror will be like meeting some obnoxious cousin at Thanksgiving-so unpleasant, so expected.
Another arresting judgment of the 9/11 commission comes from Chapter 12 of their report, “What To Do? A Global Strategy.” It is about our enemy. “[T]he enemy is not just ‘terrorism,’ some generic evil …. The catastrophic threat at this moment in history is more specific. It is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism …. Bin Laden and Islamist terrorists mean exactly what they say: to them America is the font of all evil, the ‘head of the snake,’ and it must be converted or destroyed.” Now, the punch line: “It is not a position with which Americans can bargain or negotiate. With it there is no common ground-not even respect for life-on which to begin a dialogue. It can only be destroyed or utterly isolated.”
Three thoughts follow from this one. Our enemy is a cult, embedded in a dysfunctional culture. That means our war against him will be a very long one indeed. Cults can last for hundreds of years. Gershom Scholem said that there still were people in the 20th century who believed that Shabbatai Zevi, the false Jewish Messiah of the 17th century, was the real one. There are still people in Russia who believe that Peter the Great was the Antichrist. Dysfunctional cultures are as easy to move as ocean liners. Are we going to persuade the Arab world to respect women, trust non-relatives or tell the truth?
We have to hope that the vast majority of Muslims will nevertheless reject Islamism because it contradicts the authentic traditions of their own religion, and because it is at war with the demands of living and doing that all major religions take into account. We probably have little to say in making that case. A government is not the Committee of Social Thought even for its own people, still less for the world.
We can tell any government that supports Islamists, openly or covertly, that they court destruction. If we never find an Iraqi weapon of mass destruction, this would be reason enough for the second Iraq war. Uday and Qusay are dead; Saddam is on trial. This can happen to you.