[why 9/11 was not a hoax]

I have recently run across several sources suggesting that the attacks of 9/11 were somehow an inside job, staged by our government to keep us in a state of fear. I would like to address this idea from my own perspective, which is that the attacks were indeed a surprise staged by Al Qaeda militants intent on harming the United States.

One argument is that various people predicted the attacks. Unfortunately, while some of these predictions were prescient, none of them were specific enough to suggest any real knowledge. That terrorist attacks on the United States — and on the World Trade Center in New York — were likely was a matter of public record; after all, the World Trade Center was bombed by Al Qaeda-associated militants in 1993, and Al Qaeda had staged subsequent attacks against the USS Cole and US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. There is nothing startling in someone having predicted that this pattern would continue to escalate, nor in arguing that the US response to a serious attack, if and when it came, would be to invade Afghanistan and go looking for Al Qaeda in caves.

A bit more prescience would be needed to imagine the War on Terror as it came to pass, complete with an invasion of Iraq and the installation of mechanisms for endless war and social control. A relatively small number of people did indeed make such predictions, pulling together ideas from Orwell and suspicions that Bush Jr. wished to complete Bush Sr.’s work in Iraq. These predictions turned out to be the right ones, as opposed to the many, many other predictions made by knowledgeable and thoughtful people. This doesn’t prove foreknowledge, but only that the events of 9/11 and its aftermath were not so utterly unlikely that no one could have guessed.

There are other signs and portents trotted out to demonstrate that the 9/11 attacks were somehow an inside job. The difficulty with believing any such scenario is that it would require that the Bush administration accomplished an incredibly complex, spectacularly criminal covert operation with such precision and efficiency that no one in the United States or elsewhere — and that includes a lot of very pissed of NYPD and FBI and Pentagon people — ever managed to find anything like incontrovertible evidence of their involvement. This would stand in contrast to the spectacular incompetence of the administration in just about everything else it has ever tried. I needn’t go through the litany of failures here, but it’s worth nothing that the efforts at secrecy — around the CIA black sites, the outing of Valerie Plame, the inaction on Al Qaeda before 9/11, the rapid decision after 9/11 to focus on Iraq — have been consistently ineffective. The idea that there is somehow a darker, more sinister, more competent force behind the overt bumblers in power is in some ways reassuring, but it is far less plausible than the widely accepted scenario on 9/11, which is that a small band of fanatical terrorists pulled off an attack that turned out to be surprisingly murderous.

So why haven’t we been attacked again? A weird inversion of the idea that the Bush administration attacked America on purpose is the idea that they have subsequently not attacked America on purpose, and that this proves Al Qaeda is really a hoax. The lack of a terrorist attack since 9/11 is considered evidence that the Bush administration must have staged the first one, because our security couldn’t possibly be good enough to thwart a second attack for this long.

For one thing, this argument demands that we believe our security forces are incompetent — the same security forces that secretly staged 9/11, remember, and covered it up. It also demands that we somehow ignore or explain away the bombings in London, Spain and Bali, which are evidence that Al Qaeda is indeed hard at work. Is Al Qaeda in league with the Bush administratioin? Is that why they’ve attacked elsewhere but not here? This seems highly unlikely. The War on Terror isn’t going so well, nor is the Bush plan for government control through endless war. Bush and his party would be far better served by the capture of Osama bin Laden than by getting caught making friends with him.

The current administration has done more than enough horrifically bad business that we know is true: thousands of American fighters killed and wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, the sanctioning and use of torture, the indefinite detention of thousands of innocents, the gutting of American environmental laws while we look the other way on global warming, the devastation of our global image and influence, the incompetence on North Korea and Iran, the undermining of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the utterly bungled response to the destruction of a major American city, the corruption and scandal at every level of government.

The Bush administration is bad enough. There is no need to give them extra credit.

[the truth]

Nations and individuals do not grow weaker by confronting the truth. They grow weaker by avoiding it and coming to believe their own evasions.

So concludes Jacob Weisberg in a Slate article on The Four Unspeakable Truths about Iraq. It’s a good article about the politics of the Iraq war, and it’s good advice generally — advice I’m trying to take in my own life.


Strange thought: Is the fall of Kabul to a resurgent Taliban America’s best hope? I can imagine no stronger Katrina-like event that would wake Americans from their self-deceptions on our foreign policy and completely reshape the debate over what to do next.

Boy, things have gotten ugly.

[roh on the ropes]

The New York Times has an article on the dismal approval rate of South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, down to an appalling 11 percent.

The article makes the point that Roh’s unpopularity has little to do with the North Korean issue, which people across the political spectrum recognize as intractable for any political party. The primary issue is the economy, but the article also argues that the reason the economy has come so sharply into focus is that Roh has been largely successful at what he was elected to do: give greater independence to prosecutors in pursuing corruption, stop using tax collectors and intelligence agencies for political ends, and push democratization forward.

Now voters want to use their enhanced democracy to vote for someone else. They’re frustrated by high real estate and education costs, stagnating wages, high unemployment, and President Roh’s fixation despite all this on ideological issues such as collaboration during the Japanese occupation.

What will all this mean for my little corner of the South Korean government? Hard to say, except that I hope a focus on the economy will mean we can at last get some cost-of-living raises.

I do think the article is salutary, however, for making it clear just how little the internal politics of South Korea have to do with the issues Americans associate with the country. This should be a reminder that the politics in most countries is not primarily about us, but about them. Iraqi factions are almost certainly more interested in the politics of their country and region than in our midterm elections, and spikes in violence shouldn’t be read as secret coded messages to us. The Iranian election of Ahmadinejad and the Palestinian election of Hamas likewise were not gestures of defiance aimed at America, but political calculations based on an intimate concern with the politics of those respective countries. Sometimes, an election is just an election.


I am reading the book, and I am seeing signs of it everywhere. Said provides a revelatory symptomology of Western intellectualism, arguing that Western intellectual efforts to understand the East ultimately create a kind of imaginary Orient whose purpose is to give the intellectuals power over the actual Orient and at the same time cement the role of the intellectuals as revealers of the true Orient.

Said’s narrow focus on the Western intellectual approach to the Orient causes him to overlook two important factors that undermine the charged anger he brings to his book. The first is the degree to which all of the Western scientific effort has been a struggle for mastery over the subjects under investigation, whether they are viruses, Muslims, Native Americans, steam engines, the working classes, the French, etc. The second is the degree to which all intellectual endeavor, Western and non-Western alike, has the effect of reducing raw actuality to categories and types.
Nevertheless, his insights into the particular journey of European scholarship are profound.

Said sees modern Orientalism beginning in about the eighteenth century, or the transition from the seventeenth. He does not explain particularly well why this should be the starting point, but an article on the witchcraft trials of baroque Germany reminded me that the latter half of the seventeenth century was marked by the resolution of the longstanding warfare between Protestants and Catholics (the Thirty Years War ended in 1648), and also by renewed Ottoman warfare in Europe. The long period of intra-Christian conflict sustained a divide between us and them that would need to be supplanted by some renewed sense of Christian unity. A shift of focus onto the more distant menace of militant Islam could certainly have served that purpose, just as it had in earlier centuries, during the Crusades.

I’ll post more ideas as they come up, as they certainly will. A couple quickies: Last night, in a nature show about Yellowstone in winter, a wilderness photographer spoke precisely the language of Orientalism, positioning himself as the one who is able to reveal this landscape to the wider public so that they can set about preserving it in its timelessness, or even restoring it to an imagined ideal, and also prepare it for the future. It is a language of essentialism, paternalism and romanticism, and it occurs to me that environmentalist adventurism remains one of the few traditional endeavors of romantic imperialism that remains respectable within the liberal establishment. (The others are the delivery of aid, and to a lesser extent, the grand tour.)

Or this: Said’s fervor often feels overblown, but then I run across passages that remind me of the intellectual universe in which he was operating when he wrote the book in 1977. For example, at one point Said declares that the study of imperialism is essentially a taboo in the academe, hardly discussed, particularly by American Marxist scholars. Marxist scholars? Right! I forget that just a few decades ago, serious intellectuals of the left were expected to be able at least to navigate the minefields of Marxist thought, even if they ultimately rejected Marxism. Meanwhile, by the time I reached college, the subject of colonialism was everywhere — most certainly a result, at least in part, of Said’s groundbreaking work. This intellectual earthquake, and the entrenched worldview that prevailed beforehand, explain many of the more baffling ritual insistences of our professors in college. Jenny had an East Asian literature professor who devoted considerable class time to debunking the theory that Chinese people are sluggish because they live in a hot climate. To students raised on post-Civil Rights-movement curricula, in a world of Japanese high-tech goodies, the whole idea of racial essentialism and sluggish Asians seemed as absurdly archaic as Lamarckian evolution or epicycles, but these ideas were rendered ridiculous only as recently as our early childhoods.

[more great news]

Rummy is out!

Choice quote from Bush: “Actually, I thought we were gonna do fine yesterday. Shows what I know.” Indeed. “I thought we were gonna do fine” has been the approach of this administration — and of Donald Rumsfeld — throughout the protracted disaster that they wrought in Iraq.

Other great news: John Tester has won for Senate in Montana! That means that the Senate will be, at worst, split 50-50, with Cheney as the deciding vote. And so far, Webb is still the leader in Virginia.

Meanwhile, as Rummy is shown the door, let us remember all that was best about him: his poetry and his fighting techniques. Kung fu fighting, that is. His war-fighting techniques are horrible.

[actual substance]

While the GOP attacks Kerry’s botched comments on Iraq, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attacks the Republican Congress and the Bush administration for their botched war in Iraq. The difference couldn’t be clearer.

[Via Daily Kos.]

[this is just horrible]

According to a statistical study of mortality rates in Iraq, there have been roughly 665,000 extra deaths there since our invasion on March 20, 2003. That’s more than 500 deaths a day. The study will be published in The Lancet, the UK’s premier journal of medicine.

That’s 2.5 percent of the population that is simply gone. One out of every 40 people. If the United States lost an equivalent number, that number would be 7.5 million.

When the president says we’ll stay the course, please be aware that this is the course we’re on.

[the news from iraq]

Wolf Semper Fi is a new blog by my brother-in-law Major Eric Wolf of the United States Marine Corps, who is currently at the beginning of his second tour of duty in Iraq. He is a hardworking, thoughtful, curious and competent man who manages to maintain an extraordinary optimism that is clearly a product of his very strong Christian faith. His wife is my wife’s older sister, and she and their four kids are settling into a new life out in California, fortunately not far from her parents and other siblings.

On his first tour, Eric sent back fascinating emails that revealed the boots-on-the-ground experience in a vividly personal way. His job was to assess the performance of equipment in the field, see how the boys were actually using things like bulldozers and trying to learn from the improvisations how to send more useful supplies in future.

This time out, Eric is Deputy Mayor of Al-Taqaddum Airbase, a bit west of Baghdad. Already he’s taught me something I didn’t happen to know, which is that the camp dump is run by a small Indian firm called Blue Marines. I don’t know if this matters to you in the least, but to me, this kind of detail is fascinating. If you want a window into the day-to-day bureaucratic operation of an American airbase in Iraq, written by an honest and intelligent person, check out Eric’s blog.

Oh, and as for the name, the URL and the layout, that’s all my work. Don’t blame Eric if you hate it. He always signs his letters “Semper Fi,” though, so it seemed appropriate, as did the image of the Marine emblem, the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, from an officer’s dress uniform. (I thought about using a major’s oak leaves, but I didn’t want to presume he wouldn’t be promoted.)

[bringing the war home]

Major Eric Wolf of the United States Marine Corps is a logistics officer who has served a six-month tour in Iraq. He’s also my brother-in-law — my wife’s sister’s husband — and he and three of his four kids are staying with us at the moment. They’re moving from his Washington, DC, posting to Camp Pendleton in California, and they’ve decided to do it as a drive across the country in the family van. (His wife and one of his daughters chose to fly instead.)

Shortly after his arrival at our apartment, Eric dropped the news that he’s going back to Iraq almost immediately after he gets to Camp Pendleton. Last time he flitted around the country collecting information on how units were using their equipment in various contexts, but this time he’ll hopefully have a safer job. Still, I’m not happy to have yet another family member in a Middle Eastern war zone (my brother Effie is still in Safed, though he’s heading for Jerusalem tomorrow). This morning I awoke from dark dreams of a first visit to Israel that, instead of giving me the warm and relaxed feeling virtually all Jews get when they go there, was full of falling bombs and foreboding.

All day I’ve had John Kerry on the brain — not John Kerry the presidential candidate, but John Kerry the antiwar protester in 1971:

Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say they we have made a mistake … We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake? (Full Testimony | Video Excerpt)

Substitute “Iraq” for “Vietnam,” and these words could’ve been spoken by a soldier yesterday.

Of course, there’s an easy answer to Kerry’s questions: lie to the troops. According to a recent Zogby poll, “Nearly nine of every 10 [US troops surveyed in Iraq] — 85 percent — said the US mission is ‘to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9/11 attacks,’ while 77 percent said they believe the main or a major reason for the war was ‘to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq.'” Even so, “an overwhelming majority of 72 percent of American troops in Iraq think the US should exit the country within the next year.”

This is the situation into which my brother-in-law is being tossed, this time with no particular mandate, but just to fill some boxes on a troop chart.