‘No one anticipated the kinds of strikes that took place in New York and at the Pentagon.’ – ‘The 9/11 Debate,’ Washington Post editorial, 03-24-04
That line from the Washington Post has been repeated ad nauseam by other newspapers, and across radio and television. It has achieved the status of bedrock conventional wisdom, of something axiomatic. These statements are a paraphrase of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who said on May 17th, 2002, ‘I don’t think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center, that they would try to use an airplane as a missile – a hijacked airplane as a missile.’
This kind of thinking elevates the attacks to something mythical, a magic trick, an act of God that no mere mortal could possibly have interfered with or anticipated. In fact, it was an operation planned for years by men who left clear tracks. As such, it could have been stopped. It should have been stopped. Saying so, however, interferes with the cultivation of a national attitude of vengeful victimhood, an attitude the Bush administration is actively promoting for its own benefit and political protection. Surely we were victims of terrorism on September 11, but was this unavoidable? Are the Washington Post, Condoleezza Rice and others correct in stating that no one anticipated these kinds of attacks?
The facts say no. —William Rivers Pitt, truthout
I agree with Pitt but only in a limited sense. Administration pronouncements about how 9-11 could not have been anticipated are certainly self-serving knee-jerkism but only a detailed examination of the thesis that its perpetrators ‘left clear tracks’ could convince me, and that has not yet been done for all the fog of hyperbole. No matter how inept (and as you know I will stand by my assertion that he is the most inept ill-qualified president of the postwar era at least) a president Bush is, it is inconceivable to me that he is not correct in defending himself by saying that if he had known, he would have acted. A comprehensive examination of the adequacy of the administration’s threat assessment and prioritization must be done but, the evidence aside, the insistence that of course Bush knew something ahead of time on which he did not act strikes me equally as knee-jerkism, premature and automatic. It makes me quite uncomfortable how little in the service of a reasoned political critique of the Bush administration it is.
The old saw about 20/20 hindsight should certainly be invoked here. Clearly those who claim they warned Bush and his cabal to pay more attention to al Qaeda turned out to be right; but, if it had turned out to have been ETA or Hezbollah or the IRA or the Jewish Defense League that was behind the WTC attack, so too someone would probably come out of the woodwork with a credible claim that they had voiced a warning in advance. Let’s not rush to assert that an administration should have paid more attention to any particular threat assessment simply because it turned out after the fact to have been correct. That is why the more profound aspect of Richard Clarke’s revelations is not the part about how he warned Bush to focus on al Qaeda but the portrait of the relentlessness with which Bush and his handlers pushed for the Iraq connection, pushed pitifully to hear only what they wanted to hear. As I have said over and over again, the dysadministration gets away with something if they succeed in persuading us that they made correct judgments with faulty intelligence. The distortions were not in the data they were being fed but in their consumption of it. The ‘failure of intelligence’ was not at Foggy Bottom but inside the craniums of those in the West Wing. Their threat assessment was done not by analysis of the intelligence data but by wish fulfillment, plain and simple.
Pitt implies that an attitude of ‘vengeful victimhood’ is the inevitable result of the notion that the attacks were unavoidable. I love the phrase; it is a pithy encapsulation of an attitude our government actively cultivates for its political and strategic advantage. But it arises from a deeper pathology than merely having been hit by a sneak attack. Those most taboo of taboo assertions in the fall of 2001 about how it was our fault we were attacked had nothing to do with the triviality of failing to notice the activities of a ‘sleeper cell’ of twenty Islamic young men and everything to do with remaining blissfully ignorant about the impact of our arrogant contemptuous enraging exploitative swagger on the world stage, the perversion of everything respectful and life-enhancing we could have been doing with our status as sole superpower.
Not every country surviving a major trauma becomes a vengeful victim with unbound rage and self-justified entitlement. It is arguable that the US did not do so after Pearl Harbor (although there are similar assertions that the administration then could have anticipated the Japanese attack but chose not to to advance its own agenda). And, although there are pitfalls in likening the national psyche to individual psychology, not every victim of abuse enters into a career of self-justified rageful victimhood. Those who do are in my field often called ‘borderlines’ (i.e. they are diagnosed as suffering from borderline personality disorder; link goes to the official diagnostic criteria), perhaps the most malignant, vexacious type of patient treated in the mental health field. Because of research establishing a tentative correlation in some cases, it has become fashionable to automatically attribute all borderline personality disorder to early trauma, which tends to create a self-fulfilling legacy and an ongoing legitimization of the patient’s rageful acting-out. This is a disservice to both trauma victims and borderline personalities. Once this tack has been taken in the patient’s psychotherapy, it becomes very difficult to undo the tenacious effect it has upon the patient’s self-conception to get to something that could be more helpful to them. The simple-minded equation of victimhood with a disorder of ragefulness, entitlement and impulsivity also leaves no room for the very important and largely undone research on the sources of resiliency — why some — many — victims of traumatic abuse do not go on to such lives of victimhood and psychopathology.
The study of the individual’s adaptation also shows us that it is an entirely natural response to overwhelming trauma to develop so-called magical thinking. It is comforting, and offers important aid in coping, to believe that, if one had been a little bit better in seeing them coming, there were warning signs that could have led to early recognition of the abuse and the possibility of effective evasive action. This pathological omniscience lets the victim feel that the next time they will do better at protecting themselves, an important prerequisite for continuing to function. Unfortunately, while it serves this interim coping purpose, ultimately the victim has to be disabused of the notion that they can anticipate and avoid all potential future threats. In the long run, it leads to much more realistic allocation of one’s resources to embrace the notion that life is contingent and not everything is controllable. Shifting back to the level of the national psyche, we see the administration in the throes of this type of ‘homeland security’ magical thinking about threat anticipation and avoidance, which is an enormous drain of resources and energy and largely a waste in terms of any real gains in security.
So the progressive insistence that Bush knew and did nothing is a dangerous rush to judgment compounded of one part knee-jerkism and one part magical thinking in response to overwhelming trauma. It does little if anything to further responsible criticism of the dysadministration, comprehensive appraisals of what precipitated Sept. 11th, or rational security considerations for the future.