I was dreaming of people jumping out of airplanes. A disturbing dream, it was still clinging to my mind when the phone rang and a friend asked if I was all right. That was how I learned of the World Trade Center attacks. The second airplane to strike the Twin Towers, I later deduced, had flown over my Greenwich Village apartment about the time I was waking up from that strange dream, which merges the images of terror aboard an airplane and people jumping from a great height (a tower, say) to their certain deaths.
The following hours and days are indelible in my memory. Not long after the attacks, with the huge cloud of smoke from the WTC still soaring skyward like some Biblical cataclysm, I went to Washington Square Park and saw people laughing and flirting like there was no blot on the picture of this pristine fall day. It hadn’t yet sunk in. The next day, and for many afterward, you would be hard pressed to find a smiling face in Manhattan. People were weeping, grim, sunken-eyed. The air turned acrid (was it the smell of human flesh? some asked) as the smoke blew north, over the island. Posters of the countless missing brought heartbreak to every corner and blank wall. My neighborhood remained blockaded for days. It was a time of hellish suspended animation.
I was a typical New Yorker in finding myself anxious, depressed, distracted, unable to work or concentrate. One day on the subway I experienced the only panic attack I’ve ever had. There was, of course, no immediate reason for it (although the subway in a time of presumed danger is itself a pretty good reason). Partly as a result of this I discovered something: The only train that leaves Penn Station in the middle of the night goes to Newport News. One night, impulsively, I got on that train at 2:30 a.m., rented a car at its final stop and drove to the Outer Banks where I stayed for a couple of weeks, until I’d cleared the New York jitters out of my head.
The attacks blew me out of my accustomed orbit in other ways, too. For weeks afterward I couldn’t bear the thought of writing a movie review. Instead, I wrote a series of columns for The Independent in which I discussed various aspects of the unfolding crisis. Admittedly this was partly another attempt at self-therapy, at exorcising some of the terrible spirits unloosed by Sept. 11. But it was also an effort to provide a form of commentary I wasn’t seeing elsewhere.
Besides getting a lot of feedback–mostly positive–from North Carolina on those pieces, I learned something about the power of the Internet. As a result of one column, I was invited to speak about post-Sept. 11 America at the Austrian Filmmuseum in Vienna. In the course of my talk (which was moderated by a Viennese critic who’d also written columns about Sept. 11), the question naturally arose as to why film critics should be straying into territory that might logically seem reserved for specialists in politics, war, terrorism, etc.
What I said in response went something like this: With no disrespect to the unfortunate dead, the attacks of Sept. 11 were only secondarily about airplanes, skyscrapers and human casualties. More essentially, they were about images. Images of American military bases in Saudi Arabia, and, more generally, the torrent of pop-culture images that America exports to the world, preceded and reportedly helped provoke the assaults. Images from Independence Day, Die Hard and similar movies evidently influenced their form. The attacks were experienced by most of us as a ghastly, hyper-real, almost supernatural streaming of images broadcast (and infinitely repeated) by television. And finally, these images went round the world and forged a very different image of America than existed before Sept. 11.
The thing about images is, they need interpretation. And in the case of images as highly charged and vast in their potential significance as those of Sept. 11, the chances for misinterpretation are not only legion, they are also, in potential, extremely dangerous.
So how do we “read” those dreadful images? In one of my columns, I urged that the 9-11 attacks be understood as revealing the shape of 21st-century warfare, which differs from the last century’s variety in a couple of crucial ways. 1) It depends far more on small scale technology like cell phones, computers and e-mail, and on sheer intelligence, than on ICBMs or armies or geography or wealth. The last century’s “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), the threat leveled by the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals, effectively deterred the actual use of such weapons. The new “knowledge-enabled mass destruction” (KMD) offers no such advantage; on the contrary, it guarantees mayhem. 2) This warfare will not occur between traditional nation-states, which are increasingly obsolete in an era when globalization and terror are fusing. From now on, at least one side in any such conflict will be an amorphous quasi-entity like al-Qaeda, which exists “everywhere and nowhere” and thus resists being fought by conventional means.
I reiterate this interpretation because I don’t think the extraordinary and unprecedented menace it heralds has begun to sink in. Instead, Americans have been lulled back into their pre-9-11 complacency and America’s leadership has embarked on a course of folly so dangerous and misguided it is literally staggering. Asked to write about 9-11 a year later, my inclination is not to look back but to stress the peril of the present moment with a point that I haven’t heard anyone else making: The way things stand now, OSAMA CAN STILL WIN.
I know that may sound outlandish. Indeed, one of the things that keeps us from grasping this disaster’s significance is that the whole thing seems so incredible. As I wrote in my first post-9-11 column:
“Is it possible that a wily bandit with a ragtag band of followers could topple the most powerful nation the world has ever known? Until a month ago, such a thing would have seemed beyond ludicrous, absolutely absurd. Now it seems frighteningly possible. If you wonder how, consider what happens when the proverbial 97-pound string bean uses judo to defeat the 300-pound bully. The weakling’s only “strength” lies in turning the giant’s might against him. So it is with Osama bin Laden. If we don’t cooperate with his strategies, if we don’t fall into his traps, his goose is cooked, his threat neutralized. But he has placed a large wager on our clumsiness, our bad habits and stupidity, our smug self-righteousness and deep ignorance of the world, and on the likelihood that we won’t wake up and look at ourselves before it’s too late.”
After what happened last September, it seems obvious that the last thing we should do is underestimate its presumed perpetrators. Yet that is exactly what’s happening right now. About bin Laden, two things that we know have not received nearly enough stress in the media. First, his goal: No, he’s not out to “destroy our way of life” or any other such simple-minded hokum. He’s been clear that his aim is to drive the West out of the “lands of Islam,” thus rectifying (in his view) the disaster that befell those lands with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Second, the means to that end: No, he’s not planning to fly airplanes into every shopping mall in the United States. There’s only one way he can achieve his aim, and it’s chillingly simple: spark a war between the West and the Islamic world.
In essence, it doesn’t matter who wins that war. For bin Laden, victory lies in its outbreak, since that will inevitably drive a wedge between the West and the Islamic world that could well last a millennium. (The wedge driven by the Crusades has lasted almost that long.)
A war off track
At this point, bin Laden must be rubbing his hands with glee, because the Bush administration is doing everything he wants it to do. It is falling squarely into his trap. If things continue on their present course, namely toward war with Iraq, his wager on our clumsiness, bad habits, stupidity, etc., stands to pay off very handsomely indeed.
It didn’t have to be this way. For this “war on terror”‘s first couple of months, Bush and his team performed with commendable skill and exactitude. Bush struck the right notes in his speeches to the nation; he wisely counseled against seeing this as a war against Islam; and the inevitable campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban was mounted very carefully and deliberately, not rashly. But then, in Bush’s State of the Union message in January, the whole house of cards collapsed.
I was packing my bags for a trip to Iran as I watched the speech on TV, so I had personal reasons for finding a shock of surrealism in Bush’s declaring ideological war on an “axis of evil” composed of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. This idea would not have occurred to anyone the day before, and for good reason: We had just begun a war against a very formidable opponent, and those three countries apparently are among the few not infested with al-Qaeda cells. But even more bizarre than the speech was the reaction to it. The Democratic leadership joined the Republicans and most mainstream pundits in applauding it. No one that I heard voiced the obvious: “This is completely nuts.”
Since the war on terror jumped tracks that day in January, Bush and his coven of hawks have driven deeper and deeper into cloud-cuckooland. There are, no doubt, many dubious reasons that this president is preparing to violate 200 years of U.S. foreign policy and attack a state that hasn’t attacked us. A short list of those would include: a desire to redeem his father, who Junior may believe would have been re-elected if he’d nailed Saddam in 1990; boosting his own re-election prospects; diverting attention from the faltering economy and the current cascade of business scandals; perks for the oil, banking and military-hardware industries that helped elect him; and, not least, the malign influence of Ariel Sharon and the Israeli right, who are far less afraid of SCUDS from Baghdad than of being pressured to talk peace with the Palestinians, and for whom any U.S.-Iraq confrontation is thus one helluva diversionary tactic.
But the crucial factor here, I think, is one of image. The prevalent wisdom on Bush is that the Sept. 11 crisis gave him a purpose in life, perhaps for the first time. The lackadaisical, half-attentive rich kid who barely squeaked into the White House suddenly discovered his Mission. Thus, during those couple of months when the war on terror actually looked on television like a “real” war,” he was able to project a heroic image–to us, to the world, and most of all perhaps, to himself.
But then everything changed. What could be done militarily in Afghanistan (one of an estimated 60 countries that reportedly harbor al-Qaeda) was concluded, and the rest of al-Qaeda suddenly fell off the radar. Osama bin Laden, it has been reported, escaped into the night on horseback, living to fight again another day.
Though bin Laden’s use of images has received precious little discussion in the U.S. media (which in the last year have proved exceptionally clueless and compromised in their acceptance of official inanities), I think we should recognize he verges on genius in this department. I described one of his TV coups of last fall as suggesting a combination of Merlin, John Dillinger and Andy Warhol. But the real source of his advantage is that he understands the nature of the 21st century warfare described above, and the media’s uses in it.
Last fall, he understood how a $5 videocassette sent to al-Jazeera at the right moment could trump the U.S. president on global TV. Right now he grasps something even more subtle and important. He understands the power of silence, invisibility and patience.
These are brilliant tactics that Bush’s crowd can’t even begin to fathom. In effect, bin Laden does nothing, he merely looks across the table and blinks, and Bush stabs himself in the eye with his fork.
To put that another way: Bush’s great mistake of the last seven months has been to react to bin Laden’s disappearing act and al-Qaeda’s strategic inactivity by trying to convert the whole situation into a 20th-century war, complete with armies and nation-states duking it out with expensive weapons. Iraq has been drafted into the opposing role not because of any connection to Sept. 11 or al-Qaeda, and not really because of any of the flimsy or patently ridiculous reasons adduced by the administration, but simply because this scenario requires an “enemy” nation. If Iraq disappeared tomorrow, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle and company would elect a new heavy.
All of this drastically misreads the new era of warfare announced by those horrific images of last year. Worse than that, it hands the real enemy, bin Laden, another victory and advances him further toward his ultimate goal. And that, I’m afraid, opens the very real possibility that the images which lie ahead of us may be far more terrible than the ones we’re trying to forget.