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Following the Script

September 18, 2001

Assuming that Osama bin Laden directed the 9/11 attack, how does he feel today?

Is he sitting in a cave biting his nails and moaning: “Oh dear! What have I done? Now the Americans are really angry, and they are only too likely to strike back! Why didn’t I think of that possibility?”

Or is he saying: “Just as we hoped. Bush is following the script we wrote. Of course we knew the Americans would take the bait! That was our whole design! Soon there will be open war between the infidels and Islam”?

If this is war, it makes World War II look as quaint as an eighteenth-century pistol duel at 20 paces. Our enemy is not a state with a central nervous system we can strike at, but a vexingly decentralized organization. It’s a perverse twist on the principles of the free market and federalism, and President Bush, threatening to “eradicate” terrorism, is rather like a socialist central planner threatening to eradicate a black market.

Meanwhile, the United States is taking frantic precautions, at enormous cost, to prevent the recurrence of a unique event. Whatever the enemy has up its sleeve, it won’t do the same thing next time. Knowing we are now on guard against quadruple hijackings, it will find another way to surprise us.

We are dealing with men who are willing to die in order to hurt us. Tough talk may console the American public, but it’s entirely beside the point. What is the use of threatening fanatics with violence? What is it about the word suicide we don’t understand?

Moreover, the 9/11 attack may mark a dreadful threshold. The whole world has now seen that the sole remaining superpower is by no means invulnerable. This can only encourage other potential enemies to try their hand. It’s rather like the four-minute mile: as soon as one man broke it, everyone did. It no longer seemed the outer limit of human achievement. From now on we must watch our backs everywhere on earth.

Since the real enemy is elusive, the natural response of a wounded state is to seek a tangible target — another state — to strike at. So our government is holding the Afghan government responsible for harboring bin Laden and is threatening military reprisals unless he is captured and given up to the United States.

[Breaker quote: Responding as 
expectedThis assumes that the rulers of Afghanistan know exactly where bin Laden is and can easily arrest him, if only they want to. Should we make war on such a dubious assumption? If we do, we may find ourselves fighting the entire Muslim world, roughly a billion people, with incalculable consequences, and with Osama bin Laden and his cohorts fading into the background of a third world war. Our primary mission will become subduing countless people who have nothing to do with him, but who will be united in their hatred of us. The original cause may be almost forgotten, as we pay a vastly greater price for the war than we paid last week.

World War II began with the invasion of Poland; 50 million deaths later, it ended with Poland in the firm possession of one of the aggressors. The irony was lost on the exhausted Western “victors.”

“That men set off a course of events they can neither calculate nor control,” wrote the great Shakespeare commentator A.C. Bradley, “is a tragic fact.” Nearly every war turns out to be far more than we bargained for. The Gulf War seemed like an easy victory, at the time; we won in a few weeks, and for ten years we thought we were living happily ever after. Now it appears to have made us implacable and cunning enemies.

Of course the enemy doesn’t know how events will play out either, but it is too reckless to care. It represents the nemesis of the modern state, too weak to conquer but satisfied with the stupendous disruption it can achieve. And because that enemy is not a state, there is probably no coin in which it can be repaid.

The enemy has done the unexpected. Our own government has done only the expected. There is no doubt who is winning, or who holds the upper hand.

Joseph Sobran

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Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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