March 09, 2006

The Myth of Safety

In my view, William Pfaff is one of the most perceptive and provocative thinkers and writers at work today. I hope to have time over the next few months to consider his recent book, The Bullet's Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, in some depth. In my piece about Paul Berman, I mentioned parenthetically that Berman goes very badly astray in his analysis of romanticism, its meaning and sources, and its ties to the origins of terrorism as a political tactic. In addition to its many other values, Pfaff's treatment of some of the same issues in The Bullet's Song stands in stark contrast to Berman's: I view it as correct on the main points, and of considerable importance. (When I get to this subject, which is complex and of central relevance to many of the seemingly intractable problems that confront us today, I will also discuss Isaiah Berlin's illuminating discussion of many related issues in The Roots of Romanticism.)

I will be offering some further excerpts from another of Pfaff's books, Fear, Anger and Failure, in the near future. Those upcoming posts will deal with certain overarching issues of foreign policy, and of America's view of itself and its role in the world. For the moment, I want to focus on a narrower concern, but one that continues to significantly distort all our discussions about "national security." This more limited issue comes up all the time, and it has been part of the subtext of the UAE controversy. Set all the particulars of the UAE debate aside for the moment. What interests me is an underlying attitude that influences the manner in which all such discussions proceed: it is the belief that if only we do "X" -- or, in the case of the UAE deal, if only we don't do "X" -- then we will finally be safe. Harm will no longer be able to reach us.

As a nation, we continue to suffer from an exceedingly dangerous delusion: that if we only take the correct actions, we will somehow manage to insulate ourselves entirely from all those who wish to inflict injury upon us. To put it kindly, this reflects a rather astounding degree of immaturity. At the same time, we also know that no one actually believes this fable: while our leaders wage war on a country that was no serious threat to us in the name of "safety" and with the alleged aim of reducing the terrorist threat -- while in fact, the occupation of Iraq predictably has had exactly the opposite effect -- they regularly remind us that another attack is inevitable. The fact of a future terrorist attack is a certainty, we are informed; the only unknowns are when, where, exactly how, and the extent of the devastation.

This is another form of the seeming paradox I discussed in a recent essay about responsibility: our leaders seek leave to curtail our freedoms, to engage in widespread spying, and to take any number of further actions justified in the name of security, while they also tell us that we will definitely suffer future attacks. As I pointed out in the earlier post, they thus want to do whatever they wish, while they simultaneously tell us that all such efforts will be futile, at least in part. In this manner, they can act in whatever manner they choose and, when they fail, that failure will not be their responsibility. And when they fail again, they will propose the same solution: they will insist they need still more power and that our freedoms will have to be curtailed still further -- but even that, they will remind us, still will not guarantee our safety. There is only one winner in this perpetual game: an increasingly powerful and oppressive government. History has taught this lesson repeatedly, over thousands of years, and still we will not learn it.

Pfaff's Fear, Anger and Failure is a collection of his newspaper columns documenting the "War on Terror." The first column was written on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, and the final columns are from December 2003. It should be noted that Pfaff dates our "defeat in Baghdad" to the latter date, more than two years ago. But it is very striking to read (or reread) Pfaff's column from 9/11, and to see how accurate and prescient he was. Here are some key excerpts:
The first thing that must be said about the attacks in New York and Washington is that they have demonstrated the vulnerability of the United States, as of any modern society, to an intelligently prepared and determined attack.

Military officials, and the uniformed and civilian analytic agencies attached to the U.S. defense establishment, have for decades formulated speculative scenarios of attack on the nation, but their work has been dominated by the high-technology mind-set of the Pentagon and by the engineering ethos of American society.

The planning has always suffered from the planners' assumption that an enemy would attack in a manner symmetrical to the defenses they already had in place, or that they planned to have.


The defense planners were not interested in rogue commercial aircraft.

The first real lesson -- which was not learned -- was provided nearly 60 years ago, shortly before the end of World War II, when a U.S. medium bomber, lost in the fog, crashed into the Empire State Building, then the country's highest skyscraper, in New York City.

The lesson: exotic methods and high technology are not necessary to produce devastating results. Today the lesson was validated.


Such an attack is possible as long as civil airplanes fly, trains run, power systems and public utilities function, people go to work, and business and markets continue. Each can be subverted, or intervened in, or exploited in ways that damage their users and the larger society.

Even a totalitarian security state cannot deal with this, not even if it were to suppress basic civil liberties. It is extremely important to understand this, since there will be two natural reactions to what has happened, both of them essentially futile.

First of all there will be continuing calls for revenge against those responsible, presuming that the authors are eventually identified or identify themselves.

The practical uselessness of revenge has been illustrated repeatedly and continues to be shown in the Middle East, since those who employ terrorism are not functioning on a pragmatic scale of reward and punishment. ...

The second reaction will be that the United States needs even more elaborate defenses than now exist. Yet the Pentagon, the CIA, the National Security Agency and the rest of the American apparatus of national security proved incapable of preventing today's attacks. They are incapable of preventing a repetition in some other version.

There are no technological defenses, as such, against this sort of thing. ...

There are ordinary security measures that can be taken or improved, but the nature of attacks mounted from within the regular functions of society means that no comprehensive or conclusive defense exists. The history of terrorism in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has proved this.
We still have not learned this lesson, neither we as a people nor our political leaders. We still imagine the mirage of "perfect safety" before us.

A "failure of imagination" was offered as one of the excuses for our government's failure to protect us on 9/11 -- despite the fact that it is the task of the national security agencies to engage in just such "imaginative" exercises, and despite the fact that no imagination at all was required to conceive of airplanes flying into buildings. We were thinking only in the box that Pfaff describes, and we are still thinking in the same box today. While we endeavor to make our airports and sea ports safer, some terrorists somewhere are undoubtedly considering an attack using means that no one else is thinking about at all.

And if and when such an attack finally occurs, our leaders will once more insist that "no one could have thought of that" -- ignoring the fact that those intent on doing us harm did, while those whose responsibility it is to protect us did not. Once again, they will go on to describe how a still more intrusive government will be able finally to protect us and make us safe. And the futile cycle will go on.

Four and a half years after 9/11, our basic approach still has not changed or adapted. And the full truth is worse: while administration officials tell us that this is a "new kind" of conflict, they continue to make war on states as mankind has done for untold centuries, and even on states that were no threat to us. As a result, our situation may well be more dangerous now than it was before the attacks of 2001.

There are terrible costs for refusing to learn these lessons, especially when history teaches them countless times and provides so many warnings. We can only hope that the costs are not too high, and not too horrifying.