There was a time when errant children were made to stand in corners and reflect on their misdeeds. We are made to stand in lines, in our stocking feet, with our shampoo in plastic bags and our pocket change in collection plates, waiting for others to decide how much to blur their images of what’s inside our undergarments. As we reflect upon ourselves at the start of a new decade, we resolutely gird our loins for the global war on underwear.
In the last decade, we learned that we can’t stop terrorism with dogs and metal detectors, with confiscated toenail clippers and lip gloss, with rationed pillows and lavatory visits.
In the last decade, we have not learned that we can’t stop terrorism by destroying and rebuilding Iraq, or by propping up a corrupt regime in Kabul, or by raining robots from the skies of sovereign states like Pakistan or Yemen. We haven’t learned that we can’t stop terrorism by taking hundreds of thousands of lives in distant places, or by sending thousands of our countrymen and women to their death and dismemberment, or by spending several billion dollars every week for eight years.
We have pretty much abandoned our efforts to stop terrorism by pasting bumper stickers on the backs of our SUVs. But we’re still hoping to distract ourselves with Tiger Woods’ distractions.
In the next decade, we will learn that we can’t stop terrorism technologically, because our technology is always a step or two behind. At best, we spend billions of dollars reacting to the last attack. Terrorists have learned that the more sophisticated a technology becomes, the more primitive are its vulnerabilities. Think of the billions we will spend to see beneath our clothes.
In the next decade, we will learn that we can’t stop terrorism militarily. As Donald Rumsfeld noted eight years ago (in a regrettably restricted context), there aren’t any good targets. That’s the nature of terrorism. It fades back into the bushes.
Perhaps, by the end of the new decade, we may begin to realize that terrorism cannot be stopped militarily, monetarily or mechanistically, but only morally. Not by rhetoric about the immorality of terrorism, but by reflection upon our own immorality. The fact is that we are not the good guys this time. That’s why people want to kill us. Here’s the bad news, in brief:
In 1953, the CIA engineered the overthrow of the democratically-elected, pro-Western Iranian government. We installed a dictator and trained a secret police force so brutal that by 1979 nearly every Iranian had a relative or friend who had been imprisoned, tortured or killed. That was when they rose up, overthrew the regime and started chanting “Death to America.” So, we armed Saddam Hussein and sent him to slaughter Iranians from 1980 to 1988. We didn’t worry when a million Iranians died or when Saddam used our chemical weapons on his own people. Saddam ended the Iran-Iraq war with a sizable army and a sizable debt. In 1990, when Kuwait called in its chips, Saddam sent in his troops. After the storm in the desert, we garrisoned troops in Saudi Arabia. That gave an excuse to a bad apple from the bin Laden family, and the towers came tumbling down.
Again and again, we pointed our guns at the Middle East, and shot ourselves in our stocking feet. We’ve all heard how we armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. But did you know that back in 1972, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger manipulated the price of oil so that the Shah of Iran could afford to buy more American arms? It worked so well that it inspired the organization of OPEC. As it turns out, the gas lines way back then were practice for today’s airport security precautions.
Then there’s the fate of the Palestinians. The genocidal horrors of anti-Semitism in Dachau are regularly used to excuse the semi-genocidal horrors in Gaza. The Warsaw ghetto somehow justifies the ghettos of the West Bank. It takes billions of our dollars every year to make it possible.
Whether in Berlin, or Tel Aviv, or Washington, the alluring and hypnotic mythology of an exceptional people has always issued in oppressive and self-defeating policies. So far, Germans have accepted moral responsibility. Sometimes, you don’t really see yourself until you take off your clothes and stare at yourself in the mirror.
Terrorist attacks against us will not stop until we rediscover our own moral ideals, or until we are no longer worth attacking, whichever comes first.