Dreaded Purple Master

Thoughts on the events of 9-11-01

The one thing we must not do is allow these events to change the fundamental character of American life.

I'm sure the mastermind is laughing himself silly over all those wire photos of empty airports. In the short term, shutting down air travel is a good idea. But…

If this brings us to a halt; If this leads us to institute draconian "security measures" in the name of public safety; If we begin to look too long or too hard at our fellow Americans who appear to have descended from different racial or ethnic stock than ourselves...

Then *they win*.

The "weaknesses" that allowed this to happen are also our greatest strengths as a nation. They are the reason we are the only superpower left. And the reason we are hated by the wanna-bes.

And it's the reason they don't understand us.

They were looking for uniquely American symbols, and they picked the World Trade Center? Its symbolic value is practically nil. (I mean, before the attack. It has immense symbolic value now, and will have for as long as people remember where it once stood. But if you're picking symbols, look, there's the Statue of Liberty right over there…?) It is, despite its name, not the center of world trade: That's just a name. It'll be missed, sure enough, but it's not a crippling blow.

It's only a valuable symbol if you think that America is all about money. Which maybe they do. But if that were true, Dow Jones is only two blocks away.

But what it is, and what I think led them to target it, is 110 floors full of casualties. 20,000 or so dead per plane, potentially. Must have looked like a bargain. Big honkin' flames and smoke that can be seen for a hundred miles, live on every network's morning show. You can't buy PR like that.

And it only cost them four or five loons per plane.

Do I sound bitter? I hope so. Personally, I'm in favor of increasing the standard commercial flight crew by one: Call it "sky marshal" or plainclothes security. And if training in security issues and self-defense isn't already part of a flight attendant's job, perhaps it ought to be. If it nudges the ticket price up slightly, that's all right with me.

The fact that some agency was able to hijack four planes at the same time, from three different airports, suggests either a highly sophisticated enemy or an identifiable flaw in airport security that we may be able to learn from. (I *know* what security is like at Newark.) But I'm not interested in adding to the already ponderous, dehumanizing cattle call that is security at Hartsfield.

It may be weeks before they find the recorders in New York; it may be days before they find the one at the Pentagon; but the one in Pennsylvania should be relatively easy to find. I'm looking forward to hearing about it.

And if anything points to Bin Laden, well, a new crater in Afghanistan won't be as conspicuous as the loss of the WTC, but it will be much more satisfying.

I find the Afghani / Taliban "denials" to be disingenuous to the point of actually being funny. "We don't have the infrastructure to do this. We aren't capable of this. It was done by some American group, not us. Bin Laden isn't smart enough to do this." (I wonder how Bin Laden feels about that last disclaimer.) Not the chest-beating I've come to expect from Islamic radicals.

It doesn't take infrastructure to hijack four airplanes. All it takes is planning and timing, and that's pretty cheap. And about a dozen would-be martyrs to the cause spread out across three airports. Piloting experience is a plus, but not that difficult to find. These pilots apparently trained here, since most flight schools do not require loyalty oaths or background checks.

I might also observe that if Afghanistan doesn't have any "infrastructure", it isn't because of a lack of money, but because those who have the money do not consider individual human lives and quality of life are worth anything. (I mean, they do have cities and airports like most countries - well, dirtier than most.)

If it were important to them not to have raw sewage running in open ditches beside the road (which they do), they might have done something about it in the last few thousand years. The basic principles are pretty well known by now.

Which also means that the unthinking reprisals already being carried out in this country against innocent people of Arabic or Muslim descent mean nothing to them.

And yes, I do believe there is such a thing as an innocent Muslim. One mustn't judge a faith by its extremists. (American television hasn't learned this: When they need a "Christian" point of view, they talk to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.)

A few reporters (good old dependable Salon.com) are going along with the gag that it would take the resources of a nation to commit the atrocities of 9-11, and expert pilots too. The more reliable voices seem to agree: Aided by "autothrottle" ("genius-level cruise control") and other similar features found on today's airliners, all you really have to do is point the nose where you want to go. Just about any flying experience is enough. The hard parts of flying a jumbo jet are taking off and landing - neither of which these hijackers had to do.

The fundamental truth of the situation is this: You can't stop anyone from killing anyone if they're not worried about getting away with it. A civilized response only works against a civilized enemy. Gandhi's nonviolent revolt worked because he was revolting against an oppressor that took tea time.

Knocking down the World Trade Center is not a "crime". It's an act of war. You can't respond to such an atrocity with a slap on the wrist and "boys will be boys". How many years in prison is an appropriate sentence for leading a successful conspiracy to murder 5,000 people?

It's not the American Way to respond with swift and terrible force. We have to make sure we've picked the right target. Ours are in plain sight: Theirs aren't.

But if we don't manage the "swift" part, our response had better be something "terrible". At the risk of sounding jingoistic, that's the only language they understand. Anything less will leave them alive, free to plot more mischief, and even more contemptuous of us (if that is possible).

It's been interesting watching our traditional adversaries deny any involvement. I almost feel sorry for Yasser Arafat having to explain away those videos of Palestinians dancing in the streets. Almost. But then I remember that they were dancing in the streets at the news of thousands of Americans dead, and I lose all sympathy for the Palestinians.

And that's not entirely fair. I'm prepared to accept, as I've heard from several sources, that the "dancing in the streets" footage is mostly young people who don't know any better, and happened before they learned the sheer magnitude of it. They live with terrorist activity every day: A certain amount of "See how it feels?" is understandable. And I have seen photographs of tearful Palestinians laying flowers at the American embassy.

On the other hand, American television has been more than willing to share the news with the world when Americans yield to their unworthy impulses. (Distrust of our Islamic communities, a rush to buy guns at Kmart and Wal-Mart…) Many reports of foreign gloating at America's troubles come in text-only form, without pictures or television coverage, because Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria bluntly threaten visiting reporters who attempt to cover it. So there's a lot more dancing in the streets going on, even in "moderate Islamic" countries, than we're seeing.

It seems obvious that most of the Islamic leaders know that the US could turn their countries into so many glazed craters, and there is nothing they can do about it. (And we don't have to hijack their passenger planes to do it.) Only our "softness", our "weakness" prevents us from doing so.

I think Osama bin Laden (if he is the man ultimately responsible, as seems likely) is sure it will protect him this time as well.

It further seems obvious that some heads of Islamic states think this President might actually do it.

Good. In their world, only fear breeds respect. And you know none of them had any fear of Bill Clinton.

One of the most telling quotes of the last few days we'll never actually hear. It wasn't said in public, but privately, by the President to his advisors aboard Air Force One while debating whether and when to return to Washington. It was in Karl Rove's notes, which he read to reporters later.

"I'm not going to let some tinhorn terrorist keep the President of the United States away from the nation's capital."

And he didn't. He was back before the day was out.

Waa-hoo! You tell 'em, Mr President!

: Monday, September 17, 2001