When that first plane came screaming out of the sky and into the World Trade Center tower, we were so unprepared that we didn’t even recognize it as terrorism. Not until the second plane hit did Americans realize that we were under attack. Terrorism was simply not on our collective national radar, which is why the events of 9/11 were so thoroughly bewildering. And because we were all so surprised, it seemed unreasonable to attack the Bush Administration for being surprised too. Who could possibly have expected such a thing?
As the story of 9/11 and its aftermath has unfolded, however, that initial free pass has begun to seem untenable. If America was unprepared for a terrorist attack, that wasn’t because we had no warning. Already the Twin Towers had been bombed in 1993, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. In 1996, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia were bombed, killing 19 Americans. The U.S. Embassy attacks in 1998 killed 291 people in Nairobi, Kenya, and 10 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The USS Cole, an American warship, was attacked in Aden, Yemen, killing 17. And let’s not forget our homegrown terrorists, either: the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 killed 168 people, many of them children. And I suppose we should throw the Unabomer and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic attack on the pile for good measure. And that’s just the 1990s. As far back as 1979, radical Islamic Iranians held 52 Americans hostage for months, and in 1983 they killed 241 Marines in Lebanon.
Considering this unsavory history, it’s strange that Americans were so surprised by the attacks of September 11. But the American people, perhaps exhausted by the decades-long fear of global annihilation that was the Cold War, seem to have decided to pay no mind to the gathering threat of terrorism. We were so deeply in the dark that when President Clinton, mid-impeachment, fired a couple of cruise missiles at what he hoped would be Osama Bin Laden, he was roundly accused of wagging the dog — of waging a small war to distract people from a domestic crisis. With hindsight, that speculation seems grossly misplaced, and our priorities seem wildly perverse.
Neither Bill Clinton nor pre-9/11 George Bush II showed any inclination to alert the American people to the growing danger of terrorism. This should be counted as a failure, though an understandable one: alarmist rhetoric about impending military doom can be dangerous, and in the absence of a major attack on U.S. soil, such rhetoric would certainly have been attacked as jingoistic twaddle. Less forgivable is the failure of quiet action by diplomats, intelligence services and the military. But at least the Clinton Administration was trying. When Bush II came into office, terrorism became a low priority — as Richard Clarke has noted in recent days.
Republicans have been quick to attack Clarke, of course, and claim that he has no idea what he’s talking about. But According to America Unbound, a new book by Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay:
[Outgoing Deputy National Security Advisor Lieutenant General Donald L. Kerrick], who stayed through the first four months of the Bush administration, said, “candidly speaking, I didn’t detect” a strong focus on terrorism. “That’s not being derogatory. It’s just a fact. I didn’t detect any activity but what Dick Clarke and the CSG [the Counterterrorism Strategy Group he chaired] were doing.” General Hugh Shelton, whose term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff began under Clinton and ended under Bush, concurred. In his view, the Bush administration moved terrorism “farther to the back burner.”
Before 9/11, and even after, there are plausible reasons for deciding that terrorism is not the most pressing threat to U.S. security. But the Bush Administration wants to have it both ways: they want us to believe that they did everything they could because they knew Al Qaeda was a threat, yet they want us to believe that they deserve no blame for 9/11 because they didn’t see it coming.
So which is it?