Reflections on the Third Anniversary of 9-11-01

And on the Problem of

Defining a Terrorist Victory or Defeat

[9-11-04 & 9-20-04]


Jay B. Gaskill


On September 11, 2001 I was in Manhattan.

I promised myself that I would never forget. Here is what I wrote at the time:

Saturday, September 15.

Evil is real.

On Tuesday morning it came to this city, about a mile from the Manhattan apartment where we are staying. Evil came in the form of two airliners full of fuel, and terrified passengers. It announced itself in a succession of grotesquely unreal images: two giant aircraft intersecting two giant buildings, the impacts in grim succession; two fire storms ballooning from the glass clad skyscrapers, then moments later each tower vanishing in a cloud of dust. Thousands entombed in monumental rubble. A monumental murder.

Good is real.

The last four days here have renewed my belief in the human capacity for heroism and virtue under duress. It is an honor to be among the New Yorkers. I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now.

Any moral system that fails to recognize the existence of evil and the imperative for its defeat is like a child with a compromised immune system in a plague. Evil is a recurrent pathogen, an ineradicable feature of the human condition that every age must identify and conquer anew.

In this culture, evil has too often been excused or ignored or defined away. Yet it returns. It comes like a night flare on a battlefield, illuminating the configuration of forces. Evil clarifies everything. In its looming presence, all the differences among the good melt into insignificance.

The recognition of evil is the beginning of moral obligation. To do less than to recognize and oppose evil with passion, resourcefulness, intelligence and steadfast persistence, is to succumb to it, to participate in it, to allow it to capture the very soul.

God bless New York and God bless America.

Jay B. Gaskill

From 28th and Madison

Following those sacred days in Manhattan I have observed the dismal partisan erosion of the American soul, reaching its nadir during the current presidential campaign. This is a disgraceful exercise in which my once proud and patriotic party has fallen into a bizarre twitching, schizophrenic break with reality. The party of Roosevelt and Truman has become the party of ambivalent non-warriors, pretending to care about robust national security while fearing the very decisive and sometimes dangerous measures that the times demand of us.

I fervently wish that I could wake up my friends on the left. We are all enemies to the Islamist extremists. What they ask of us is tantamount to suicide. We are in a war we did not choose and that we cannot afford to lose. On this third anniversary, I address two questions:

Can we define the moment of victory?
By what metric can we measure the end of this war?


Defining the Threat

When President Bush opined during a pre convention interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer that “I don’t think you can win” the war against terrorism, he stumbled over a problem in definition. When we define terrorism as violent criminal activity done to further some ideological goal, we will never be rid of it. Criminals – with and without ideological pretensions – will always be with us.

We face an uncommon terror campaign, a jihad aimed at the national jugular. We may have difficulty identifying our moment of victory, but our defeat would not go unnoticed.

To define “victory” in the current struggle, we must understand why this is a war. The coordinated attacks on September 11th targeted our institutions of political, economic and military power, and inflicted damage on a scale comparable to Pearl Harbor. Beyond that, the scope of the malevolent purpose exceeded Japan’s objectives in WWII. The real target of the 9-11 attacks was the very infrastructure of Western, secular civilization.

Purpose always matters. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked. Islamic terrorism is a coordinated and potentially effective series of attacks designed to destabilize, neutralize, demoralize, disrupt or destroy the support systems of the target civilization. What we are now experiencing is a major scale escalation of terrorism fueled by a single ideology with the goal of destabilizing or eliminating the US as a world obstacle to the ultimate objective.

Why Are We The Target?

The current terror campaign is a clear threat to our interests because its architects plan to create a vast Islamic pan-Arab proto-state. It is this single theme that links the school massacre in Russia, the Madrid bombings, the WTC attack and several hundred other attacks on Western “targets of interest”.

We were singled out for special attention because we were correctly identified as the single most powerful opponent, and opportunistically, because of a terrorist miscalculation: They thought we would fold early. If – God forbid — the Islamists were ever successful, extraordinary resources and technologies of war and mass murder would fall into the hands of ideologues whose beliefs are chillingly like those held by the Nazis of the last century. Not only would this neo-Nazi, Isalmist regime control the world’s primary oil reserves, its access to the huge oil revenue would fund a very dangerous military threat, one that would quickly escalate beyond WWII proportions.

This jihad is kept alive by passive or active state sponsorship, the infiltration of indigenous support systems within non-hostile states (including our own), and the establishment of stand-alone bases of operations within the feral regions of the world where nation states exert no effective authority at all. These terrorists have utilized and still need facilities, finance, materiel, and logistical support of a kind and scale essentially unobtainable without the overt or covert cooperation of motivated nation states. Libya, Syria, Iran and the former Iraq, covert elements within Saudi Arabia (aided by certain Saudi family princes), among other nation states, have supplied territory, funding and cover. Other nation states, notably Pakistan, China and Russia, have supported or permitted the sale of weapons to terrorists or to dealers who are part of the terrorist pipeline.

The Bush Administration quickly recognized that the very first post-9-11 priority was to create strong disincentives for non-cooperating regimes, robust enough to frighten the most hardened and otherwise secure dictator. This required an unflinching willingness to inflict and to take casualties. In turn this called for clarity of purpose, consistency and the capacity for occasional ruthlessness.

A ruler like Omar Kadaffi needed to see his own non-cooperation risk profile as higher than any other threat to his regime. A defiant ruler like Saddam needed to be driven from power.

The risk-averse stance appropriate to the Cold War, where an aggressive misstep might provoke massive nuclear retaliation no longer applies. The goal is to forestall ever again getting into another mutually assured destruction trap. Our willingness to act boldly to punish terrorist cooperation, even on insufficient intelligence (& intelligence is always insufficient) is a very effective deterrent in itself.

When Do We Win?

When can we declare victory, by what metric can we detect its arrival?

The outline of victory will emerge as several of the following stages become visible:

The shift to active cooperation in the anti-terror effort by all of the key regimes with overt or covert terror ties. Russia, Pakistan and China are partly on board. We can reasonably expect that mutual cooperation to increase as the scale and common origin of the threat become more apparent. Libya is partly neutralized. The Saudi government has begun to get aggressive within its own territory in making arrests. Syria is momentarily deterred. Iran is in flux, still a clear and present danger. Korea seems hell bent on making a deliverable nuclear arsenal but appears deterred for the moment from trying to export trouble.
The extension of responsible state or quasi-state control over the “failed state” or feral regions. This not accomplished, though our paramilitary forces are now actively present in the major trouble spots.
The return of all portable WMD’s to state control within a mutually transparent pan-state system of mutual accountability. Limited progress has been made based largely on the ability to trace weapons to their country of origin, and the implicit threat of retaliation. A “quick trigger” response policy (as in this administration’s willingness to attack a non-cooperating regime even without conclusive evidence of WMD’s) does work to discourage regime foot dragging, deception, and obfuscation. The overall task of accounting for these weapons is challenging but far from impossible. The number of the deliverable weapons in circulation is finite, while the value of keeping them is far outweighed by the penalties of being caught with them (especially given the new American ruthlessness).
The development of robust covert systems of surveillance, infiltration, detection, disruption and destruction of terrorist cells, infrastructure, and support within the U.S. and the West generally. We Americans are hindered by a paranoid mindset that links terrorist suppression with suppression of dissent. The more 9-11 recedes from our memory, the more difficulties we will have in developing and implementing a really robust domestic anti-terrorist program.

Terrorist gestation within a country of region has lead times comparable to cancers. The success metric suffers from the same uncertainty inflicted on every recovering cancer patient. Cancer “cure” rates are measured by the number of years without a recurrence.

Well suppressed terrorism should the goal, not be zero incidents. If we are winning we can expect that terrorism against us will not involve major national assets and will reduce in scale, falling into the background noise of ordinary crime within the next ten years. This process will be accelerated as we achieve effective hardening of five key assets of our civilization:

the core communication system;
the core transportation system;
key economic assets;
key democratic political assets;
key military assets,

If the Islamist extremists are discredited in the Middle East by the emergence of viable, economically healthy, more pluralistic models of governance, their terror campaign against us and the West will die a natural death. But, if the U.S. population ever becomes demoralized, the terrorists may win even if they are never able to accomplish another 9-11 scale attack on our soil.

Terrorism is an opportunistic infection in the human social condition. It emerges whenever our social immune system is sufficiently weakened. Complacency, cowardice and moral neglect are ever with us. Their darker companions – fevered minds with deadly weapons – will never be far away.

There is a sixth key asset of our civilization, one fully within our power to “harden”. It will trump all the rest. When the base-line confidence of the American people in the validity and value of our civilization is strong, we can never be defeated. If we, as a people, carry but one fraction of the fervor of a typical suicide bomber in our devotion the survival of our civilization, we will win hands down.

Copyright © 2004 by Jay B. Gaskill.

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