Sunday, September 11, 2011

September 11th, 2011

Over at Ace of Spades, CAC posts a moving piece about the Falling Man

September 11, 2001 seems like a very long time ago. The world moves on. And yet the falling man is still there, suspended in a purgatory of pixels, halfway between the top of a burning building and the cold, hard earth. Brought down by men who knew how to destroy a skyscraper but not how to build one.

It is important to remember how we got here. The Falling Man is gone, as are the 2976 others on that day. All we could do is decide, as the West, how to act afterwards. So what have we done for them? How do we score ourselves, ten years on?

I think if I had to articulate what memorial we as a society would have wanted for the Falling Man, it would have only two parts.

1. Kill every one of the bastards that did this to him.

2. Make sure this never happens again.

The rest is just details. It may add or subtract from the overall scorecard, but it's still details.

And on those two enumerated  fronts, I think we've done pretty well.

For the first part, we can score ourselves pretty highly. There's still a few stragglers around like Mullah Omar, but for the most part the men behind this have been hunted down and killed. And the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, whatever their overall merit, succeeded in decimating the ranks of Al Qaeda and their sympathisers. And at last the man behind it all came face-to-face with the people he scorned, and got a lead sandwich and a free trip to the bottom of the ocean. As he must have known was going to happen eventually. The men who instigated this wanted war, and war they got.

Even before that though, Osama bin Laden was yesterday's man. Al Qaeda these days is a shadow of itself. This is good news in terms of the first goal, but it's even better news in terms of the second goal.

But how did that happen? How do we know that another September 11 isn't just around the corner?

My view is that there won't be another September 11, at least not one perpetrated by Islamic terrorists. In this sense, the reduced ranks of Al Qaeda are the symptom, not the cause.

The reason that September 11 was able to happen was that none of the authorities were seriously on the lookout for it. Partly they weren't looking for this kind of plane-based attack, as hijackings before had largely been about ransoms - law enforcement and the FAA hadn't thought about how to deal with people who wanted to make commercial jets into suicide bombers.

But more importantly, law enforcement and intelligence weren't looking for the people behind September 11. They just hadn't figured as a serious security threat up to then. In hindsight, obviously they should have - the USS Cole and Khobar Towers should have alerted US authorities to the threat. Still, they didn't.

September 11th got their attention, though. Bureacracies move slowly, and the CIA and FBI are no exception. But once they have their eye on a particular threat, they're quite good at tracking them down and disrupting their operations. It's hard to organise large-scale plans to destroy the first world. It's a lot harder when every law enforcement and intelligence agency in the first world is on the hunt for you.

The reality is that people who think it's a good idea to blow themselves and thousands of civilians up in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate don't tend to be the brightest bunch. Kind of goes with the job description. That's why on the customs form, the September 11 hijackers wrote their address as 'Hotel, America'.

And these were the first-string guys for the premiere operation.

Can you see why this type of operation is only plausible when facing an enemy that is clueless about your existence?

This is why I'm confident that we won't face another terrorist atrocity any time soon, at least until there's some new group with some new grudge trying out some new tactic that we hadn't thought of. That will happen in time. But it won't be from Al Qaeda. The end of this war will only be known in hindsight. There will be no formal surrender on the USS Missouri to let us know that it's over. Still, there was only one Pearl Harbor, and my suspicion is that there will only be one September 11.

And for that, I'm extremely grateful to all the military, intelligence and law enforcement people who work to keep it this way. Especially the thousands who have died or been wounded in the decade since.

Every war has its screwups, its friendly fire, and its atrocities, and the war on terror is no exception. But for now, things look fairly optimistic to me. Given what we wanted to happen that day and where we are now, I am optimistic. Cautiously optimistic, with an asterisk that will always be attached. But optimistic nonetheless.

And so at last we come full circle, to The Falling Man. What can I say to him that has not already been said by others?

In the end, nothing.

"[A]tque in perpetuum, frāter, avē atque valē."

And for eternity, brother, hail and farewell.

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