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COLUMN

Anything Is Possible

Philip Burrowes

This nation needs a boogeyman. It was based on a conception of the British as an oppressor, expanded to conquer the western expanse, flourished with the righteous indignation of the World Wars, and surfeited on Cold War stockpiling. Each era in its history features such peaks, but it also exhibits valleys -- the Civil War, the Great Depression, Oklahoma City -- where elements of the nation seem to cannibalize themselves without an external target. Yet the country is not willing to admit that this is the case, and places the blame on iconoclasts or exogenous factors. Reaction to what transpired Tuesday at the Pentagon, Pennsylvania, and New York City is only one in a long line of such cases of denial.

Although nobody knew what prompted the airplane crashes, terrorists were almost immediately blamed. Even worse, both intelligence officers and security amateurs alike were pointing fingers at specific parties. This was all before any “credible” group laid claim to the action, and in the face of explicit denial from potentially culpable bodies. Palestinian and Afghani officials disavowed the acts, yet media implicated them by citing individual citizens. Congressmen went as far as to declare this a coordinated act of war.

Other explanations do in fact exist. While the possibility of coincidence appears hard to swallow, probability becomes secondary in such extraordinary circumstances as these. Mechanical failure could easily have been responsible for the overshadowed Shanksville crash. Given the military results of a Pentagon attack and the more psychological and financial impact of the World Trade Center’s destruction, different groups could have targeted each. An inside job by the pilots themselves seems too simple, but not impossible.

Nonetheless, a coordinated effort is indeed possible, but possible for numerous factions. The idea of a “rogue state” being involved has been dismissed because the hypothetical international recrimination would be too great. In fact, any retaliation could be along similar lines, and as the backlash against Israel has shown, the aegis of war may no longer be enough to forgive attacks upon state infrastructure. Before that even becomes an issue, the sheer surrealism of suicide bombings on such a grand scale would shield foreign agents from rapid discovery. More importantly, the apparently inexplicable nature of the actions does not lend itself to an ideologically supported war.

Instead, terrorism’s inherent uncouthness makes it more palatable to target; relatively few accept terrorism when it calls itself as such. Osama bin Laden is all the more fantastic an enemy, given his supposed track record and general foreignness. By capturing him, America could conceivably wrap up a chapter of its history in which it showed vulnerability in a way not seen since the War of 1812. Never mind that the weakness is largely a result of the country’s hubris; “Look at our conspicuous military center, see our tall buildings, watch our news outlets divulge contingencies.” Like the Titantic or the Hindenburg, the Twin Towers were doomed to eventual failure.

What is most surprising is that this has not happened more frequently. America’s greatest defense for the past half-century has been merely our image. Terrorists avoided American soil; not because they couldn’t -- the country has large, rather open borders -- but because they would not want to. Should an organization seek to attack from afar, the U.S. was backed by the specter of nuclear defense, allies, and sheer manpower. Truthfully, targeted opponents of the nation -- from Cuba to Iraq -- have never been quickly and efficiently squelched.

Elsewhere, nations have long been submitted to more pernicious attacks. Germany’s Reichstag in 1933, Chile’s presidential palace in 1973, and Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid in 1992 were all destroyed with far more disastrous results. Guerilla warfare has and will run rampant across the world. Domestic politicians have coded such behavior as barbaric, cowardly, and simply below the United States, yet have consistently proven inefficient in curtailing it. Vietnam and the Sandanistas effectively defeated the U.S.

Selected officials and professionals have claimed an intelligence deficiency, but to what end? One proclaimed that national security is a higher priority than education, a statement which is dubious at best. Bush promised to “hunt down” the perpetrators, although we are led to believe he had no significant leads.We are all scrambling to find an enemy to denounce.

Despite all the ambiguity and posturing, what has transpired is genuinely a tragedy. Whether it happened because of a riot, a plague, or accident, the permutations on casualties of such magnitude are unfathomable for the mortal mind. Perhaps it is this elusiveness of the issue which prompts the fabrication of a guiding force. If people could be content with irrationality, with the unfairness of it all, the species would find itself under the sway of despots. As it is, we are led by demagogues through rhetoric, not force: passion, not ego.