On September 11, 2001, the question was whether we had underestimated al-Qaeda. It appeared to be a Muslim version of the radical seventies groups like the
Baader Meinhoff gang or the Japanese Red Army. It was small, only a few hundred
really committed members who had sworn fealty to Bin Laden and would actually
kill themselves in suicide attacks. There were a few thousand close sympathizers, who had passed through the Afghanistan training camps or otherwise been inducted into the world view. But could a small terrorist group commit mayhem on that scale? Might there be something more to it? Was this the beginning of a new political force in the Middle East that could hope to roll in and take over, the way the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan in the 1990s? People asked such questions.
Over four years later, there is no doubt. Al-Qaeda is a small terrorist network that has spawned a few copy-cats and wannabes. Its breakthrough was to recruit some high-powered engineers in Hamburg, which it immediately used up. Most al-Qaeda recruits are marginal people, people like Zacarias Moussawi and Richard Reid, who would be mere cranks if they hadn't been manipulated into trying something dangerous. Muhammad al-Amir (a.k.a Atta) and Ziad Jarrah were highly competent scientists, who could figure the kinetic energy of a jet plane loaded with fuel. There don't seem to be significant numbers of such people in the organization. They are left mostly with cranks, petty thieves, drug smugglers, bored bank tellers, shopkeepers, and so forth, persons who could pull off a bombing of trains in Madrid or London, but who could not for the life of them do a really big operation.
The Bush administration and the American Right generally has refused to acknowledge what we now know. Al-Qaeda is dangerous. All small terrorist groups can do damage. But it is not an epochal threat to the United States or its allies of the sort the Soviet Union was (and that threat was consistently exaggerated, as well).
None of this is Patriotically Correct but, I’m sorry, 9/11 did not change everything. In fact, I can’t think of a single thing it’s changed in my life. Attacks like those conducted on 9/11 were essentially stopped with one action: sealing cockpit doors. Sure we need to be vigilant against terrorists, foreign and domestic, but we should not scrap the Constitution, be on a perpetual war footing or become so fearful of the terror boogieman that we start behaving irrationally.
Certain political elements in this country find The Terrorists™ a convenient way to retain power through fear but that does not mean we need to buy into their appeals to our base instincts.
I’m sure I’ll have more on this later.