This is, of course, the week before the tenth anniversary of the day that "changed everything." And enough was indeed changed that it's easy to forget what that lost world was like. Here's a little reminder of that moment just before September 11, 2001:
The "usually disengaged" president, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd labeled him, had just returned from a prolonged, brush-cutting Crawford vacation to much criticism and a nation in trouble. (One Republican congressman complained that "it was hard for Mr. Bush to get his message out if the White House lectern had a 'Gone Fishing' sign on it.") Democrats were on the attack. Journalistic coverage seemed to grow ever bolder. Bush's poll figures were dropping. A dozen prominent Republicans, fearful of a president out of touch with the national mood, gathered for a private dinner with Karl Rove to "offer an unvarnished critique of Mr. Bush's style and strategy." Next year's congressional elections suddenly seemed up for grabs. The president's aides were desperately scrambling to reposition him as a more "commanding" figure, while, according to the polls, a majority of Americans felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld had "cratered"; in the Middle East "violence was rising."
That's a taste of the lost world of September 6-10, 2001 -- a moment when the news was dominated by nothing more catastrophic than shark attacks off the Florida and North Carolina coasts -- in a passage from a piece ("Shark-Bit World") I wrote back in 2005 when that world was already beyond recovery. A few days later, we would enter a very American hell, one from which we've never emerged, with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney leading the way. Almost a decade later, Osama bin Laden may be dead, but his American legacy lives on fiercely in Washington policy when it comes to surveillance, secrecy, war, and the national security state (as well as economic meltdown at home).
This week, TomDispatch will attempt to assess that legacy, starting with this post by Noam Chomsky. It's a half-length excerpt from a new "preface" -- actually a major reassessment of America's war-on-terror decade -- part of Seven Stories Press's 10th anniversary reissue of his bestseller on 9/11. Entitled 9-11: Was There an Alternative?, its official publication date is this Thursday, and it includes the full version of the new essay, as well as the entire text of the older book. It can be purchased as an e-book and is being put out simultaneously in numerous languages including French, Spanish, and Italian. Thanks to the editors at Seven Stories, TomDispatch is releasing this excerpt exclusively, but be sure to get yourself a copy of the book for the complete version. Tom
Was There an Alternative?
Looking Back on 9/11 a Decade Later
By Noam Chomsky
We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the horrendous atrocities of September 11, 2001, which, it is commonly held, changed the world. On May 1st, the presumed mastermind of the crime, Osama bin Laden, was assassinated in Pakistan by a team of elite US commandos, Navy SEALs, after he was captured, unarmed and undefended, in Operation Geronimo.
A number of analysts have observed that although bin Laden was finally killed, he won some major successes in his war against the U.S. "He repeatedly asserted that the only way to drive the U.S. from the Muslim world and defeat its satraps was by drawing Americans into a series of small but expensive wars that would ultimately bankrupt them," Eric Margolis writes. "'Bleeding the U.S.,' in his words." The United States, first under George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, rushed right into bin Laden's trap... Grotesquely overblown military outlays and debt addiction... may be the most pernicious legacy of the man who thought he could defeat the United States" -- particularly when the debt is being cynically exploited by the far right, with the collusion of the Democrat establishment, to undermine what remains of social programs, public education, unions, and, in general, remaining barriers to corporate tyranny.
That Washington was bent on fulfilling bin Laden's fervent wishes was evident at once. As discussed in my book 9-11, written shortly after those attacks occurred, anyone with knowledge of the region could recognize "that a massive assault on a Muslim population would be the answer to the prayers of bin Laden and his associates, and would lead the U.S. and its allies into a 'diabolical trap,' as the French foreign minister put it."
The senior CIA analyst responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden from 1996, Michael Scheuer, wrote shortly after that "bin Laden has been precise in telling America the reasons he is waging war on us. [He] is out to drastically alter U.S. and Western policies toward the Islamic world," and largely succeeded: "U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it is fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden's only indispensable ally." And arguably remains so, even after his death.
The First 9/11
Was there an alternative? There is every likelihood that the Jihadi movement, much of it highly critical of bin Laden, could have been split and undermined after 9/11. The "crime against humanity," as it was rightly called, could have been approached as a crime, with an international operation to apprehend the likely suspects. That was recognized at the time, but no such idea was even considered.
In 9-11, I quoted Robert Fisk's conclusion that the "horrendous crime" of 9/11 was committed with "wickedness and awesome cruelty," an accurate judgment. It is useful to bear in mind that the crimes could have been even worse. Suppose, for example, that the attack had gone as far as bombing the White House, killing the president, imposing a brutal military dictatorship that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands while establishing an international terror center that helped impose similar torture-and-terror states elsewhere and carried out an international assassination campaign; and as an extra fillip, brought in a team of economists -- call them "the Kandahar boys" -- who quickly drove the economy into one of the worst depressions in its history. That, plainly, would have been a lot worse than 9/11.
Unfortunately, it is not a thought experiment. It happened. The only inaccuracy in this brief account is that the numbers should be multiplied by 25 to yield per capita equivalents, the appropriate measure. I am, of course, referring to what in Latin America is often called "the first 9/11": September 11, 1973, when the U.S. succeeded in its intensive efforts to overthrow the democratic government of Salvador Allende in Chile with a military coup that placed General Pinochet's brutal regime in office. The goal, in the words of the Nixon administration, was to kill the "virus" that might encourage all those "foreigners [who] are out to screw us" to take over their own resources and in other ways to pursue an intolerable policy of independent development. In the background was the conclusion of the National Security Council that, if the US could not control Latin America, it could not expect "to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world."
The first 9/11, unlike the second, did not change the world. It was "nothing of very great consequence," as Henry Kissinger assured his boss a few days later.
These events of little consequence were not limited to the military coup that destroyed Chilean democracy and set in motion the horror story that followed. The first 9/11 was just one act in a drama which began in 1962, when John F. Kennedy shifted the mission of the Latin American military from "hemispheric defense" -- an anachronistic holdover from World War II -- to "internal security," a concept with a chilling interpretation in U.S.-dominated Latin American circles.
In the recently published Cambridge University History of the Cold War, Latin American scholar John Coatsworth writes that from that time to "the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of non-violent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites," including many religious martyrs and mass slaughter as well, always supported or initiated in Washington. The last major violent act was the brutal murder of six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, a few days after the Berlin Wall fell. The perpetrators were an elite Salvadorean battalion, which had already left a shocking trail of blood, fresh from renewed training at the JFK School of Special Warfare, acting on direct orders of the high command of the U.S. client state.