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Between the Lines

March 26, 2004

The national repression syndrome

Let's take a brief break from news today to explore some of the psychology at work behind the news. Specifically, these two themes:

-- Our eerie disinterest in finding out too much about the events leading up to 9/11 – until now, when a career bureaucrat has made it unavoidable.

-- Our great good fortune – so far – in avoiding some potentially very serious terror attacks by our own home-grown nuts.

I’m wrapping these two threads together in a single post because I think they’re related in what we want to think of as threats.

Billmon got me thinking about this today with a post that wonders why it took this long for people to begin really exploring what happened before 9/11 that may have contributed to that disaster.

“One of the things I found most remarkable about 9/11 -- at least when compared to past national traumas like the Kennedy assassination or Pearl Harbor -- was how willing the American public was to put questions of responsibility and accountability out of mind, seemingly indefinitely,” he writes.

“This seemed -- and still seems -- like a dramatic break with the past. After Kennedy was killed, the pressure to find out who did it was overwhelming, forcing the quick creation of the Warren Commission. After the Pearl Harbor fiasco, the internal military and congressional inquistions began almost immediately, and soon, probably too soon, identified Adm. Husband Kimmel and Gen. Walter Short as the sacrificial scapegoats.

“Needless to say, the verdicts of both the Warren Commission and the Pearl Harbor inquiries have been, and probably always will be, second guessed. But if those debacles produced a psychological rush to judgment, 9/11 initially seemed to produce a rush to forget -- not the attacks, but the hidden events and decisions that led up to the attacks. … [My emphasis.]

"But, thanks to [Richard] Clarke, and to the attention he focused on this week's public hearings, it seems like the collective mental block has been broken. Suddenly, people want to know the story. … "

The question, of course, is how patient Americans will be in taking the time that will be necessary to connect all the dots in what is a large and very complex picture. Clarke’s testimony, while illuminating, is only part of that picture, which has been emerging in bits and chunks for a couple of years now. Clarke’s detailed knowledge of what was or wasn’t done during the years since the recognition of al-Qaida as a potential major threat in the Clinton years certainly helps fill out our perspective. But it is by no means the last word.

Our home-grown wackos

Another phenomenon that we’ve essentially set aside since the Oklahoma City bombing and the capture of the Unabomber is serious attention to domestic terrorism. This, too, is unwise because, as Seattle blogger David Neiwert points out, "domestic terrorism is largely indistinguishable from international terrorism in terms of the damage that it can inflict -- and that focusing on one at the expense of the other leaves a nation truly vulnerable to lethal violence."

One of the many problems with the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” Neiwert asserts, is its deliberately narrow focus on military operations abroad. Such operations are part of the picture, certainly, in retaliating against Afghanistan for its refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, but they’re only a part.

The reality, Neiwert says, is that, “Terrorism is a global phenomenon. It takes the shape not of a singular or even related ideology, but the idiosyncratic form of whatever extremism gives it birth. It is amorphous, and highly corpuscular, sometimes effectively emanating from extremely small groups or even individuals. And it is every bit as alive and well in America as it is in the Middle East.”

Unfortunately, our focus on terrorism as an external threat has blinded us to the very real dangers posed by various wingnuts here at home. Neiwert notes, in particular, the cases of the Texas cyanide bomb, the Florida nut who planned a string of abortion-clinic bombings and a guy in Tennessee, who apparently planned to shoot up a Jewish daycare center.

Plus, of course, we still have the unresolved case of the anthrax letters, which was almost certainly domestic terrorism.

The message here, I think, is that we need to a) get over our reluctance to look at hard facts about government screwups – on Clinton’s watch as well as Bush’s – and view terrorism as a broad-based phenomenon that requires a broad and coherent defense.

Posted by tbrown at 01:08 PM


This attemtped smear of Richard Clarke is truly farcial. Europeans liked this testimony! Oh, the horror!

Of course, the author, Denis Boyles, can’t help lying about what Clarke actually told the 9/11 commission. But, hey, it’s the National Review. Why confuse readers with truth at this late date?

For the record, though, here’s what Clarke actually said, under oath, about lying – and it wasn’t that he engaged in it:

THOMPSON: Mr. Clarke, in this background briefing, as Senator Kerrey has now described it, for the press in August of 2002, you intended to mislead the press, did you not?

CLARKE: No. I think there is a very fine line that anyone who's been in the White House, in any administration, can tell you about. And that is when you are special assistant to the president and you're asked to explain something that is potentially embarrassing to the administration, because the administration didn't do enough or didn't do it in a timely manner and is taking political heat for it, as was the case there, you have a choice. Actually, I think you have three choices. You can resign rather than do it. I chose not to do that. Second choice is...

THOMPSON: Why was that, Mr. Clarke? You finally resigned because you were frustrated.

CLARKE: I was, at that time, at the request of the president, preparing a national strategy to defend America's cyberspace, something which I thought then and think now is vitally important. I thought that completing that strategy was a lot more important than whether or not I had to provide emphasis in one place or other while discussing the facts on this particular news story. The second choice one has, Governor, is whether or not to say things that are untruthful. And no one in the Bush White House asked me to say things that were untruthful, and I would not have said them. [My emphasis.] In any event, the third choice that one has is to put the best face you can for the administration on the facts as they were, and that is what I did. I think that is what most people in the White House in any administration do when they're asked to explain something that is embarrassing to the administration.

THOMPSON: But you will admit that what you said in August of 2002 is inconsistent with what you say in your book?

CLARKE: No, I don't think it's inconsistent at all. I think, as I said in your last round of questioning, Governor, that it's really a matter here of emphasis and tone. I mean, what you're suggesting, perhaps, is that as special assistant to the president of the United States when asked to give a press backgrounder I should spend my time in that press backgrounder criticizing him. I think that's somewhat of an unrealistic thing to expect.

THOMPSON: Well, what it suggests to me is that there is one standard of candor and morality for White House special assistants and another standard of candor and morality for the rest of America. I don't get that.

CLARKE: I don't think it's a question of morality at all. I think it's a question of politics.


THOMPSON: I'm not a Washington insider. I've never been a special assistant in the White House. I'm from the Midwest. So I think I'll leave it there.

Posted by tbrown at 12:58 PM

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The national repression syndrome


Blogs to watch

Abu Ardvark
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