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.