Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th

I'm not sure what to say in recognition of the tenth anniversary - and while I haven't liked the long run-up to today I feel like now that it's here it's worth saying something.

I was a senior in high school when it happened. One of the things I remembered most was that initially no one knew what was going on - and the teachers were instructed not to tell us. Eventually it came out, of course. But that initial period was especially scary. We knew we were on lock-down, and we knew an explosion happened at the Pentagon, which was just a few miles away. I remember some of the kids in class had parents who worked at the Pentagon - and they were beside themselves with no clue what had happened. I remember thinking that in particular was stupid on the school's part, but then again this isn't something you really planned for (at least then).

How much it would change things was something that sunk in slowly too. At lunch I remember being in my European History teacher's class with other students because he had a TV on. One of them asked him if he thought "we would bomb them or not". I remember the teacher looking shocked that he would even ask and responding "there is going to be a war over this". I remember going over to my girlfriends house right after school (that was probably a dumb kid move on my part - probably should have gone home to my parents') and again just watching the TV until I finally went home later.

I've been a little concerned about the reaction to the response. The Patriot Act clearly ought not to have been passed in the form it was, but I hesitate in criticizing it because I feel like I don't know enough about it. I worry that 95% of it is very wise and entirely appropriate and I worry that the healthy Franklinesque attitude of "those who would trade freedom for security will get neither" might throw the baby out with the bathwater. How much actually represents a "trade"? The same goes with the wars. I was against Iraq well before it was even started, and haven't changed my view on that. But I worry that Iraq and Afghanistan have been melded in a lot of peoples' minds and that the fact that the U.S. has made mistakes causes some people to doubt the value of taking an offensive stance towards terrorist organizations. It should not be hard for people to voice the fact that radical, militant Islam is as barbaric as any other radical militancy. We can't address every problematic case, but when a particular problematic case attacks us on our own soil there ought to be no doubt that the most powerful liberal civilization will root out radical militarism and barbarism. That's not a call for neoconservative reshaping of the rest of the world, it's simply to say that there's nothing inappropriate about destroying an attacker and - if its as barbaric as al Qaeda is - wiping it out completely. This isn't a goal-driven war like the Revolutionary War, where we achieve what we want and then let George III keep his throne. This is a case for eradication. Like Nazi Germany, you don't let them survive because the point is to destroy them. That would have been more plausible and more of the focus of the American people if we hadn't gone into Iraq, but unfortunately we did.


  1. Thoughtful comments, but you should read the Chalmers Johnson "Blowback Trilogy." Then you'd understand why they attacked us:

    "In Blowback, I set out to explain why we are hated around the world. The concept 'blowback' does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes -- as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001 -- the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback. In the first book in this trilogy, I tried to provide some of the historical background for understanding the dilemmas we as a nation confront today, although I focused more on Asia -- the area of my academic training -- than on the Middle East." - Chalmers Johnson

    Dennis Baker

  2. Dennis -
    If I had to summarize why they attacked us in one word that word would be "blowback". I agree.

    Part of the response needs to be rectifying what we have done. Part of the response needs to be putting down al Qaeda. Civilized people don't fail to prosecute revenge killings.

  3. You make the war sound like it's essentially a massive police operation. Catch and punish the crooks who did it. But according to wikipedia, the war in Afghanistan killed 14000-34000 civilians. I'm pretty sure cops aren't allowed to do that. Nor would anyone suggest that they should be allowed to do that if it helps them catch the bad guys.

  4. You can't kill innocent people to get revenge for something some other people did. That is EXACTLY what Al Qaeda did.

  5. I remember the hours after the attack; combat patrols were being flown over my little cabin/house in the Vermont backwoods. They would race across the sky, presumably looking for aircraft trying to sneak across the Canadian border. I was stacking wood for the winter heating season. In my head all I could really intellectually think of was Thucydides, and I felt a certain amount of dread because of that.

    As for Afghanistan, we accomplished most of what we needed to accomplish with ~400 CIA and spec ops forces on the ground in the first ninety days of that war. After that we started to try to nation-build, and did that without clearly recognizing that we have a very bad track record when it comes to that sort of thing (if there were questions about such, Germany and Japan were given as counter-examples - which are examples of a highly problematic nature). Then the move toward invading Iraq came along in 2002 and we took some of the best elements of our forces out of Afghanistan. Thus the intimate relationship between the two wars was set fairly early; they remain intertwined along a vast array of fronts. The reason why Afghanistan and Iraq are melded together is because they are - that was something of a conscious choice obviously.

  6. Stravinsky why do you think we are in Afghanistan to get revenge? I'm sure vengence is a personal motivator for a lot of people, but it seems like an odd driver for a military operation of this magnitude. We are in Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda and allied networks because they are perceived to be a threat to civilization that can't be allowed to survive. There's an emotional satisfaction in that for most people, certainly. But your insinuation that we're killing innocent people as a way of working out feelings of vengence is a poor (and for the troops, I'm sure very insulting) reading of the situation. If not a single civilian died I'm sure everyone would be more satisfied with the outcome - wouldn't you agree? If you agree, then I don't know how you can construe this as "kill[ing] innocent people to get revenge for something some other people did".

    Of course - we can't have a 0% civilian casualty rate, and that's something tough to grapple with. How do you trade off allowing organizations like this to exist with the collateral damage? You can't simply look at one side of this ledger, Stravinsky - convenient as that may be. Life is a lot harder than that.

    For a nation-state to get involved, usually the trade-off turns on actual violation of sovereignty and the international order. Hitler probably could have stayed in power if he stayed in Germany. The United States first has an obligation to protect Americans - not to remake the world in its image. So unless these organizations are a threat to Americans, the case for that tradeoff (and the inevitable civilian casualties of war and many other costs of war) is weak.

    Remember, of course, that the majority of those civilian casualties - by both liberal and conservative estimates - are attributable to the Taliban. Unlike the United States, repressing the civilian population is actually a goal of the Taliban. So please don't use what we're trying to stop as an aspersion on the men and women trying to stop it. I'm putting myself at risk of a Godwin's law infraction, but that's like saying six million Jewish died in WWII, which should make us think twice about whether we should have gotten involved.

    I wish the situation were as easy as you try to make it, Stravinsky - but it simply isn't.

  7. re: "As for Afghanistan, we accomplished most of what we needed to accomplish with ~400 CIA and spec ops forces on the ground in the first ninety days of that war."

    This is very true, however what they didn't accomplish in the early days of the war allowed al Qaeda to move into Pakistan. That safe haven - and not some inherent desire to nation build - was the source of the trouble putting an end to it all over the next ten years.

    If we finished off al Qaeda before they could get safely to Pakistan you would not see the continued presence on the magnitude you see today. The only reason why we are fighting is because that Taliban can continue to launch attacks from safety.

    re: "The reason why Afghanistan and Iraq are melded together is because they are - that was something of a conscious choice obviously."

    Right but that's the point - it was a choice, not a necessity. And it was a bad choice.

  8. (a) It wasn't an unusual choice; over-reactions like that are what one should expect.

    (b) No, the reason Al Qaeda remains was due to said over-reaction (the situation in Pakistan is merely a symptom of that); it should have been a war against Al Qaeda, full stop. That it wasn't, well, isn't terribly surprising.

  9. On (a.) - I agree completely, but while it wasn't unusual it was not so usual as to be inevitable. It really didn't have to happen. We can be completely unsurprised without being fatalistic about mistakes like this.

    On (b.), if you mean that changing the focus to Iraq reduced our ability to finish al Qaeda and the Taliban off early then I agree with you. But I wouldn't call their escape to Pakistan a "symptom". That's the entire problem.

  10. Revenge was a bad choice of word. I still think that in principle the war in Afghanistan and the 9/11 attack are indistinguishable. But if you were an Afghan civilian, would you agree with the actions of the United States?

  11. Stravinsky -
    I don't know. I think it would be clear to me that the United States doesn't want to rule and repress me, but does want to fight the Taliban. And I think it would be clear that the Taliban (I'm assuming I'm not a sympathizer) does want to rule and repress me. And while I think all that would be clear to me, I think it would also be clear to me that the war itself is placing a burden on me too.

    I don't know how I would interpret all that together or what tradeoff I would make, if I were in their shoes.

  12. Even if what we were told happened on 9/11 is entirely true, and that OBL undertook that attack with the help of the Taliban, that 15 Saudis took over multiple planes with box-cutters and rammed them into buildings, etc, that still does not validate the continued occupation of a nation for the acts of individuals who are no longer alive.

    Further, even if everything that we were told was absolutely true, and that our pols were of the highest caliber, that still does not justify the Patriot Act in my mind. Because, even if the pols who passed the legislation did so with the best intentions and of the highest degree of virtue, that doesn't mean that subsequent pols will do the same.

    Nefarious characters operate in all forms of organizations, there is no question about that. Why would the government be immune?

    Joe Fetz

  13. I don't think anyone's arguing that the government would be immune, Joe. I'm obviously not. I'm also not arguing that the Patriot Act should have been passed - only that a different version of it probably could and should have been passed and that criticism of "The Patriot Act" as such obscures that. As for the continued occupation - you'll see from my discussion with Gary that I think the course of the war could have gone a lot better if various decisions were made, so in that sense I sympathize a great deal with your point here. But I think your logic is weak. Do we only go after the Japanese that were actually involved with the attack on Pearl Harbor? Of coure not. Just because it was executed by a selective group doesn't mean it wasn't an act committed by a broader group.

  14. Dan, I will respond to you later. Sorry, I have something that just came up.

    Until then I just wanted to ask you something. Have you ever checked out the GWU (your alma mater) portal regarding A-stan and Iraq? And, if you have, what is your opinion on the validity of it?

  15. (a) Actually, given the context one ought not be surprised and it was inevitable. Large, military laden empires react differently to attacks such as this than do say small states. What one is capable of expands the sphere of the permissable. Athens would not have had the crazy idea to invade Syracuse if it had not been for their sea-borne empire from which they extracted loot by which to expand that empire.

    (b) Their escape was a consequence of (i) a shift in resources and (ii) and unwillingness to commit resources by those committed to a wider war. Afghanistan was viewed as a sideshow in other words. This isn't the first time the U.S. has done this; starving one theater in favor of another - our efforts in Italy in 1943-1944 amounted to as much.

    (c) As for PATRIOT, you see part of a pattern; the executive getting powers assigned to it after an outrage when previous to that granting of such had been resisted. The OK City bombing facilitated the passage of AEDPA. And of course the major effect of these laws has little with the field of terrorism; the largest effects are seen in, you guessed it, the drug war.

    (d) You may enjoy this:

  16. Gary - for the second time you are presenting excellent evidence that it is not unusual but no evidence that it is inevitable. It's amazing you can talk so flippantly about social science on one of my threads and here claim that there is an element of the social world that is "inevitable" in another thread.

  17. (a) We've had this conversation before. It is a basic, hmm, aphorism isn't the word I want to use, but it is close, of radical whiggery that large military powers fight a lot of wars and that they respond either attacks or perceived opponents via open warfare or proxy wars. So yes, we're a large military power and we thus fight lots and lots of wars and when we deal with external threats we do so by some act of war. Go to the Marine Memorial in D.C.; it shows the litany of foreign conflicts the U.S. been in. It is a sort of path dependency that is hard to break away from short of the collapse of the empire itself; but it shouldn't be surprising that in large military states that all problems start looking like, well, nails.

    (b) It ought to be obvious that mine is a very narrow claim based on a fairly small sub-set of historical nations, kingdoms, empires, etc. It isn't a novel claim also either.

    (c) If economics were more historical in nature I would probably give it more credence. But history doesn't seem that terribly important to economists (and I have had economists at various stages in their careers tell me this, so in some ways it is an insider observation). Ex. Keynes talks about the "ancient barbarism" of the gold standard, when in fact in the context that he speaks of it the gold standard was not terribly old (really less than a hundred years old by the 1930s - in fact, you could claim that really only came into being in the 1870s). This is no defense of the gold standard; I believe there to be way too much fetishism (and optimism) associated with "hard money" standards. Also I do think of this as being totalistic; I loved Cohen's monograph on classical world banking in Athens for example. Of course you are free to disagree with my criticism of the discipline.

  18. Gary what are you talking about? Do you think I have challenged the idea that military powers resort to wars to solve problems?

    The word that you've repeated has been "inevitable". If you're not going to justify that assertion of inevitability you don't need to continue commenting.

  19. Daniel,

    But I have justified it, enough for me at least, and as much as I am going to do a blog post.


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