Michael H Goldhaber on Fri, 20 Sep 2002 22:54:36 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Terrorism, "Mass-Destruction Weapons," Bush, and Iraq

Here are my latest thoughts on Iraq, etc.


Terrorism, "Mass-Destruction Weapons," Bush, and Iraq

by Michael H. Goldhaber, mgoldh@well.com

September 20, 2002

The first thing to note about terrorists is that there aren't very many
of them -- at most a few thousand active ones in a world of billions. In
a certain sense, the few there are are quite successful: with their
small numbers they garner lots of attention to themselves through their
violent acts, and even a little to their causes. But in those cases when
they have had fairly clear aims, they have rarely succeeded.At most they
succeed in terrifying, in disrupting, but not in getting what they
supposedly want, be it independence for Basques or Tamils,  the
incorporation of Northern Ireland into the  Irish republic (nor the
tighter integration of Northern Ireland into Britain, as Protestant
terrorists wish) the incorporation of Kashmir into Pakistan, or the
downfall of the State of Israel. Al Qaeda, if it wants a worldwide
Islamic "fundamentalist" state, hasn't done well either.

In the scale of destruction and the worldwide attention paid, none have
equalled the World Trade Center attackers. The scale of the damage they
did has led the US government in particular to begin to worry very
publicly about "Weapons of Mass Destruction" in the hands of al Qaeda. But
before we begin to believe that al Qaeda is that formidable, it is worth
recalling that the damage they did on Sept 11, 2001 was far larger than
all their previous attacks; it was sophisticated but required the
hijackers to be armed with nothing more advanced than box cutters.

Also we must realize that the destruction and death toll was so large in
New York only because of a series of problems that could not have been
foreseen by the terrorists. It is quite likely that the death toll would
have been in the hundreds, not thousands, if the towers could have stood
longer, if the water supply in high floors were not cut off, if New York
Fire Department radios had worked better, and if the same fire department
had been more thoroughly prepared for coping with large fires on high
floors of skyscrapers. The buildings would have withstood the fire much
better had the spray-on insulation on the steel beams and other metal
supports not been knocked loose, either by the force of the planes hitting
the towers or by the effect over time of the winds that caused the
buildings to sway. Even the architects were surprised by the insulation
problem; the terrorists could hardly have been as knowledgeable.

The point of all this is that though terror is certainly terrible and the
death toll of September 11 was ferocious and horrendous, taking that event
as the standard of what terrorists can do, especially once there is some
heightened degree of alert against them, provides an altogether
inappropriate level of fear. It is this fear that the Bush administration
is presently manipulating, very deliberately, to prepare the public for an
attack on Iraq that they intended to undertake well before September,
2001, and that bears no real relationship whatsoever to September 11. (The
success they have had in this is not unconnected to the American public's
internal focus, general lack of knowledge of the world- where's Iraq?-
absence of memory for those under 40 or so of what a prolonged and messy
war entails in loss of life,etc.)

As far as is known, only one terrorist group has ever attempted to use
biological or chemical weapons, and that was Aum Shinrikyu, the Japanese
cult even stranger than al Qaeda, but probably with a much higher level of
technical training among its members. In its one successful attack, which
immediately led to its downfall, it managed to kill nine people at a Tokyo
subway station. This is not to say that some equally bizarre group will
not arise some time, somewhere with similar intent and greater success,
but it does suggest that these complicated and hard -to-use weapons are
hardly a significant, worrisome danger right now. They are rather in the
category of nightmares, if waking ones -- ideas arising in our own minds
that then frighten us out of our wits. In this case they are ideas that
people who want us to be scared into some silly reaction try to inflict on
us as real.

In that category, I would put last fallís anthrax attacks. Coming as they
did in letters to politicians and news media that announced them as
anthrax and warned that the recipients should take antibiotics, the lethal
anthrax missives were probably not intended to kill as much as to frighten
the world-- most likely with the (successful) aim of increasing funding
levels for anti-terrorism efforts. If so, they didn't come from al Qaeda
and its allies, but only took advantage of the September 11 attacks to
heighten receptivity to their message. They were terrorist-like in that
their aim was attention getting through generating fear, but that is a
ploy very commonly used by political movements of all sorts. Certainly the
Bush administration was adroit in using the attention thus focused on
biological weapons to add to the public's fear about sophisticated
scientific weapons that go beyond hijackings and chemical explosives, and
that has helped generate their war drumbeats against Iraq now. The FBI has
moved very slowly in fingering anyone as the likely anthrax attacker,
which raises at least a hint of suspicion that it was in some sense an
inside job, feeding on a paranoia that has been shared or deliberately
cultivated by lots of members of Bush's national security circle.

This Bush circle is closely tied with the groups who did everything in
their power to take down the Clinton administration, including impeachment
over lie about sex, apparently because they were so angry at having lost
the Presidency and the power they considered rightfully theirs in 1992.
This crew is composed of people whose power base in the defense
establishment and in traditional industries tied to energy production was
threatened by the end of the Cold War, the rise of the so-called new
economy, and the environmental movement, and perhaps also by movements
against racism and sexism. Despite the presence of Condoleeza Rice fully
on their side in the administration, these are overwhelmingly white men
and mostly Anglo-Saxon Protestants. One would have thought their days
firmly in command were decidedly over, and they probably are, but that is
just what makes these folks so determined and single-minded in restoring
their former glory by virtually any means necessary. They are not unlike
Communist Party apparachiks in various former Soviet republics or in China
in this, and though far more successful, not utterly unlike Islamicist
groups such as al Qaeda, who unwittingly handed them such excellent

But the administration's strategy for holding on to and perhaps enlarging
power has a basic weakness.  The US, though now acting bully-like, to its
vast discredit, remains by far the most powerful country in the world,
compared to which the terrorists, and in fact the entire Arab world are
gnat-like weaklings, whatever weapons they may try to use. But as in an
odd sort of jiu jitsu, the strength of the reborn cold warriors now
advocating hot war remains the perceived threat of al Qaeda and other
Arabs. If Bush and company launch a successful war against Iraq, that may
gain them momentary popularity, but it will also undercut their argument
for continued paranoia as the basis for their rule. If, by some
miscalculation, an Iraq war should prove overly costly or a quagmire, they
will lose credibility and power even faster.

After all, Bush's popularity was sagging before 9/11 01. He immediately
and deftly seized on the attack to raise his standing by announcing that
the war against terrorism would henceforth be the focus of his
administration.  Yet, in the long run, that too has to be a lose-lose
proposition: if further successful large -scale al Qaeda attacks occur,
the administration will be discredited; if they don't occur, the
administration fear-mongering will be. Either way, a power base resting on
the flimsy reed of fearing terrorists who are far less powerful than the
old Cold War enemy must crash. The absence of a reasonable positive agenda
will condemn Bush and the other troglodytes eventually, but certainly more
quickly if a coherent opposition with a more vital agenda both forms and
finds means of expressing that agenda in ways the distracted public can
grasp and align with. That remains the real challenge for the anti-Bush,
anti-war, anti-terrorist "left."

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net