I remember . . . remarking on the criminal futility of the whole thing, doctrine, action, mentality; and on the contemptible aspect of the half-crazy pose as of a brazen cheat exploiting the poignant miseries and passionate credulities of a mankind always so tragically eager for self-destruction . . . a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent1Pp. 8-9 of the 1980 Penguin Books edition.

In this manner, Conrad rendered his first impressions on hearing the news that a lone anarchist had killed himself in a failed attempt to blow up London’s Greenwich Observatory in 1894. It was to this old novel that I first turned after the catastrophic nihilism that toppled the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Writing a month later, Conrad’s first impression then has become my conviction today: nothing in our adult lives has prepared us for such a contemptible fusion of willful mass terrorism, blood-stained earthly tragedy, and passionate, ardent conviction—the adolescent fantasy that one big bang will change the world and usher in a global “jihad,” a new epoch of “Crusades,” or the final solution to eight decades of history that have passed since the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

In its utter recklessness and indifference to consequences, its craven anonymity, and its lack of any discernible “program” save for inchoate revenge, it was an apolitical act. What programmatic direction issues forth from the collapse of the twin towers and the attack on the Pentagon? Throwing the money-lenders from the temple? But the banks remained open and stable, and the stock market reopened in a week. A curse on globalization, by attacking its skyscraping symbols? Peaceful protesters and agitators had done much more in the years since Seattle to draw attention to the pretensions and inequalities of globalization than either the anarchist saboteurs in their midst or the foolish wreckers of a pristine September day in New York. What is their next step, what is their program, what is their strategy, how will the chief terrorists know when they have achieved their goals? (And Tony Blair is right that had it been 60,000 dead instead of 6000, all the better for them.) What would a “peace negotiation” look like with such criminals? The infernal perpetrators are dead—that is not a starting point, but the end; they accomplished a terrible but ultimately futile and self-defeating act because they brought into being the very forces that may well put an end to two decades of mindless terrorism.

For these reasons, social science can have little to say about September 11th, it seems to me. We can all tally the grievances of Muslims and Arabs going back eight decades (or eight centuries for that matter), just as we can tote up the very long list of errors, misguided ventures, mass violence, and criminal ventures that can rightly be laid at the door of the United States. In the past month many on the Left, in my view, have made the fundamental error of framing the terrorist attacks against the sorrier aspects of the American record abroad, when in fact nothing that has ever happened since the United States was founded could sensibly justify such wild, wanton and inhuman recklessness. It is as if I were to get upset about the war in Vietnam 30 years ago or the American carpet bombing of North Korea 50 years ago (two things I have pondered for a long time) and decide to commandeer a Mack truck, load it with explosives, and run it headlong into the Sears Tower.

In other words, the act bears comparison to the sick individuals with some sort of grievance who have shot up schools, malls, or the Capitol Building in the U.S., and who are later shown not to have taken their daily dose of Thorazine. I would imagine that the pilots who only wanted to learn how to fly Boeing passenger planes straight, to the left, and to the right also chose September 11th because of the ubiquity of the 9-1-1 emergency number—as in, okay, call 911 now! If so, this again expresses their adolescent rage, their apolitical futility, and their brazen self-assurance: suppose God is a Hindu, not a Muslim, and instead of 70 virgins on the other side of the rainbow, they get reincarnated as the first 19 cockroaches that New Yorkers spray or squash every New Year, for eternity?

Others say, look at how the Muslims hate America: do they not have legitimate grievances? The answer is twofold: yes, they do have legitimate grievances, and one of them is the continuing mutual terror of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And no, they have no particular grievances in 2001 that are different than their grievances in the past fifty years; at any point since the creation of the state of Israel it was child’s play for any demagogue to stoke popular Muslim anger against the United States.

Bin Laden conjures up 80 years of humiliation, as if Palestine today, on the cusp of having the first independent state of and by Palestinians in that eight-decade period, is worse off than it was under the British mandate, that is, when it was effectively a colony; or that Saudi Arabia is led by nothing more than a contemporary version of Egypt’s King Farouk or some other profligate Sultan. That Saudi Arabia is corrupt and swollen with wealth that it did not earn is undeniable, but that has also been true for fifty years; the current crisis is much more likely to require some opening of that regime than to cause its demise. Osama bin Laden appears to harbor one clear goal, to rule over Saudi Arabia and use its vast pools of oil as a weapon against the West; one report alleged that he would like to drive oil to $166 a barrel and thereby ruin the West. Such precision from a wrecker like this! But it will never happen. This monomaniacal and homicidal lunatic will not come close to ruling an utterly devastated Afghanistan, let alone Saudi Arabia. The only question is how much havoc he can wreak before his reign of terror ends.

I have no expertise in South Asia or the Middle East, but I would guess that it is the peculiar Saudi combination of Wahabi fundamentalism for the masses and hedonism for the elite that so deeply upsets bin Laden, as it would a renegade son of that same elite. After all, his taste for mass violence and his insane bravado also fit the personality of a favored and spoiled princeling, who gazes at the world through profoundly solipsistic lenses. Such a person’s reach always exceeds his grasp, and I hope that attribute seals his fate in the current crisis.

For these and other reasons, I have been asking myself for five weeks if this is a beginning—”the first war of the 21st century” in CNN-speak—or an ending. We have had two decades of global terrorism, roughly dating from the Iranian revolution. How much longer will it last, given that its stated goals (like the erasure of Israel) are no more likely today than in 1980? How many Muslims exist with passable English and the modern abilities to manipulate credit accounts, get multiple driver’s licenses and fake i.d.’s, learn to fly jumbo jets, etc.—people who otherwise would be professionals? I cannot believe that they are many. Certainly, one country after another on a belt running from Indonesia to Algeria produces desperate young men by the tens of thousands, unemployable in their economies; Egypt is said to graduate 20,000 lawyers a year of whom perhaps ten percent get jobs commensurate with their degrees. Clearly, this reflects a colossal failure of development in critically important countries like Pakistan and Egypt, but that is hardly anything new. It remains hard to believe that there are so many naifs willing to commit suicide in the prime of their lives for goals that have not and cannot be attained.

Many have leaped forward with historical analogies to our present crisis, even though I can’t think of any. Comparisons with the Cold War are truly absurd: whatever one may think about Stalin’s Soviet Union, it competed head to toe against the U.S. and offered a top-to-bottom alternative system that was at the same time modern; both powers were complete believers in material progress and both were committed to global competition between two kinds of modernism. In being so, the USSR was rational and could be deterred. It had no wish for suicide, and carefully stayed out of going to the brink with the U.S.—in Iran in 1946, Berlin in 1948, Korea in 1950, and Berlin again in 1961. The exception was the Cuban missile crisis, but a strong and wise American strategy of confrontation and negotiation ended that episode to the detriment of Moscow. As Americans we witness this commonality of aspirations in a clip from CNN’s Cold War documentary: the first human to descend from outer space, Yuri Gagarin, parades through Moscow in 1961 in a Zil four-door convertible with huge chrome bumpers, soaring tailfins, and wide whitewalls setting off the metallic green paint of a car that mimicked the last American four-door convertibles, still being made then by Lincoln.

We cannot imagine bin Laden and his Taliban friends in such a scene; these might be the only people on earth who regret that the wheel was invented. They give new meaning to the word, antediluvian. And had it been bin Laden in 1962, he would joyfully have tugged on his end of the knotted rope that Khrushchev so memorably (and eloquently) spoke of. In short, bin Laden and his followers have not the slightest thing in common with our old enemies, whether the communists like Stalin or the national liberation figures like Ho Chi Minh. They have something in common with Saddam Hussein, but his aggression in 1990 was of the common, old-world Bismarckian variety—and it did not work.

Philosophers in the just war tradition have long argued that self-defense is the only legitimate reason to kill other human beings, a judgment carrying the corollary that an aggressor bears an unconscionably heavy burden because he cannot know the consequences of his aggression. History is littered with testimony to this truth, and to take another analogy so often made to September 11th, this is where Pearl Harbor belongs in history: a rash and reckless attack, but one that eventually brought upon the heads of the perpetrators the gravest consequences for the future of the Japanese nation—for the first time in its long history. But it was just that: aggression, of a kind the old world had seen many times, and with a usually unremarked military efficiency: total American casualties in the Pearl raid were 2,335 naval, army and Marine personnel dead, and 1,143 wounded. Total civilians killed: sixty-eight.2Gordon Prange, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 539. A counterforce attack directed exclusively at military targets, it had a soldier-to-civilian kill ratio of about 34 to one. Furthermore, as Harvard’s Akira Iriye has shown, Pearl Harbor followed upon an ever-intensifying U.S.-Japan cold war of many years’ duration, including acts of war by the U.S. (preeminently Roosevelt’s oil embargo).

None of this characterizes the September 11th attack. It was barbarous in its conception, heedless of consequences in its execution, lacking a politics precisely in Conrad’s sense, and ultimately self-defeating of the cause it purported to champion. It goes without saying that today we cannot know the full consequences of this act, but certainly an anti-terrorist coalition has been brought into being unlike anything the world has ever seen. Old enemies like Russia and China are part of this effort, and it is inconceivable that any great power would see its interests or prestige wrapped up in anything bin Laden is doing. His type could only rule atop an irradiated smoking ruin of modernity (probably he hopes for that, too), where the dark ages—or the epoch before the 5th century B.C.—could be recreated. Otherwise, he and the Taliban are the most remarkable atavisms that the modern world has ever seen.

The containment system

The war in Afghanistan is a different problem, with potential consequences that might end up defeating the best intentions of the United States and its allies. Most commentary has focused on the perils other powers (Great Britain, Russia) have faced in trying to fight in or subdue Afghanistan, but I am not competent to say whether that history will again govern the outcome of the current conflict. I would instead direct attention to the politically-shaped containment compromises that have characterized America’s wars since 1945, and the likelihood that the current war will lead to a permanent American commitment to try and stabilize the most unstable region in the world: the belt of populous and mostly Muslim countries stretching westward from Indonesia all the way to Algeria.

American combat troops first landed at Inch’on on a warm, beautiful September day in 1945, and on another pristine September day in 2001, the eleventh day, 37,000 of them were still there. Korea is the best example in modern history of how easy it is to get into a war, and how hard it is to get out. Vietnam would have been the same, and indeed was essentially the same from the mid-1950s when Washington committed its prestige to the Saigon regime, to the mid-1970s when the war concluded with an American defeat—because the U.S. could neither sustain a stable Saigon regime nor a divided Vietnam. If it could have done so we would still be there, stuck in the aspic of another Korea (South Vietnam would have been a “NIC” until the Asian crisis of 1997, and North Vietnam would resemble North Korea).

World War II was the clearest kind of military victory, yet American troops remain on the territory of their defeated enemies, Japan and Germany; however many justifications come and go for that remarkable and unprecedented situation (in that the leading global power stations its forces on the territory of the second and third-largest economies), the fact remains that it has persisted for 56 years and shows no signs of ending. The Gulf War came to an end when President George H. W. Bush and his advisors, preeminently Brent Scowcroft, kicked on the brakes well short of Baghdad and thus spawned the newest containment system, now a decade old, leaving 9,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and various bases there and elsewhere in the Middle East.

There are good social science reasons for the American inability to extricate itself from wartime entanglements, however those commitments depart radically from anything the U.S. experienced up until 1945. Vital interests are asserted where none existed before, temporary expedients become institutional commitments, military and bureaucratic interests proliferate, the Pentagon bean counters take over, every new appropriations season in Congress becomes an occasion for defending this or that outpost (new or old, vital or marginal)—and American power is mired in works of its own doing. Last December I visited P’anmunjom once again, this time courtesy of the U.S. Army. Our hosts gave us the Army’s version of the history of the Korean War (a version that could not have changed since 1953), and a luncheon of flank steak and French-fried potatoes of similar vintage, offered in a cafe a mile or two away from North Korean positions that had a country music poster on the wall advertising Hank Williams’ tour of Atlanta in 1955.

The curiosity is that tens of thousands of troops can stay in places like Germany or Korea for decades, but 250 Marines killed in Beirut or a handful of soldiers killed in Somalia prompt immediate about-faces in Washington, again to the detriment of American power and credibility. The reasons for this are entirely political, and one version of this particular politics was laid out with rare concision and eloquence by Mark Danner in an important 1000-word essay on the New York Times Op-Ed page on October 16, 2001:

For at least a quarter-century American power has coexisted with American inconstancy and capriciousness. Alongside the triumphant cold war narrative we have shaped for ourselves one can easily trace another story, one of bluster and flight and uneasy forgetting: the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961; the panicked retreat from Saigon in 1975; the humiliation at the hands of the Iranian ‘students’ in 1979; the wholesale flight from Beirut . . . in 1984; the abandonment of Mogadishu, Somalia after the death of 18 American servicemen in 1993. . . . This litany points not to any lack of American courage but to a lack of political grounding that has haunted the country’s foreign policy for a half-century. America’s power has been technologically robust and politically fragile.

Danner traced the causes for this lack of political grounding to Washington’s fear of the “suspicion and impatience” of the citizenry when American power is deployed abroad, and to American politicians who are “unwilling to expend the political capital required to convince the country to act decisively when its interests are at stake.”

Although Danner traces this back to 1961, Truman and Eisenhower were no different. When the United States finally inherited the mantle of Britain’s global leadership in 1947, this capped a rapid rise to world power that might have happened well before World War II, but did not happen until Franklin Roosevelt reached for preeminence after Pearl Harbor. Subsequently, the U.S. became the power of last resort for just about everything, but particularly for the maintenance and good functioning of the world economy. It remains so today. Yet this hegemonic role, which statesmen like Henry Stimson and Dean Acheson understood well, was masked from the American people by a march outward characterized as defensive and unwanted: it was called containment, and that strategic cover lasted until the cold war ended and the USSR collapsed—whereupon the American global position continued apace, unabated, with defense budgets to match. Time and again the communist threat was invoked to get the American people to support a completely unprecedented role for their country in the world, but at least since the Gulf War (more likely since Vietnam), the justifications have worn thin. A sharp difference now exists between the American people, who can barely muster a coherent justification for why we retain such large expeditionary forces abroad, and successive administrations in Washington that invent new perils and enemies from year to year (Saddam was likened to Hitler, and today China was to be our new enemy—until September 11th obliterated that foolish and dangerous notion).

For the containment system to conquer a new South Asian front will be easy in the short run; in the aftermath of such a horrific attack, the American people will support whatever measures the (cold-war) experienced Bush team desires. In the longer run, however, a failure to destroy bin Laden’s terror network, to replace the Taliban with a broad-based and self-sustaining Afghan government (the first task strikes me as much easier than the second), and an inability to extricate American forces from becoming the policemen of South Asia (and much of the Middle East), will tend to jeopardize all the other far-flung American security commitments. Anyone who would confidently chart the future today would be a fool, but the first thought that struck me when thousands of casualties resulted from an attack on the American mainland, for the first time since the civil war, was that over the long pull the American people may exercise their longstanding tendency to withdraw from a world deemed recalcitrant to their ministering, and present Washington with a much different and eminently more difficult dilemma than the one Mark Danner proposed: how to rally the citizens for a long twilight struggle to maintain an ill-understood American hegemony in a changed world.

It has long seemed to me that we are ill-fitted to be a global superpower, the power of last resort, or Madeleine Albright’s “indispensable nation,” because we are backward compared to our allies in Europe and Japan. Our allies have fashioned a pattern of modern urban life that is deeply satisfying to most of the citizens who live it, because it is exciting and interesting, and buttressed by critical social safeguards for the infirm, or the unemployed, or the elderly. They have a social contract for a well-functioning social market. Japan may be vegetating in the teeth of a decade-long recession, but one would never know it from the extraordinary vibrance, stability, and safety of cities like Tokyo. In Europe—particularly in Germany and France—political leaders not only come from the generation of the 1960s but represent much of what people were working toward then as goals—civil rights, women’s rights, a better environment, a safety net for the poor.

Successive Republican administrations since 1968 have been fighting that legacy, but the difference with Europe and Japan occurred much earlier: a fatal political departure toward the beginning of the cold war, as Mary Kaldor has long pointed out, that propelled Western Europe and the U.S. along different political paths—and it is still there, and may be worse than at any point since 1945. I think that only when the United States comes up to the modern standard of our allies in Europe and Japan, can a true coalition of nations unite and stand for the promise and the actuality of the modern, and deepen the work of extending it to the vast majority of people in the rest of the world who remain utterly outside of its promise, angrily looking in.

National security and the social sciences

My last observation will strike many readers as crude, but I think the current crisis aptly demonstrates the turn from actually existing reality that has activated the social sciences (and in a different way, the humanities) for at least the past two decades. I don’t know what game theory or the rational choice paradigm can teach us either about the tragedy that befell us on September 11th, or the new war we have embarked upon. What mix of costs and benefits, signals and “noise,” “states” (of being, brought into being, etc.), incentives and deterrents, dependent and independent variables, transparencies, and moral hazards, would have dissuaded the 19 suicide bombers from their task or will predict the consequences of the current war in Afghanistan? Meanwhile, the most reviled form of inquiry for self-described “cutting edge” social scientists in the past two decades, one usually caricatured as “area studies” or “ethnography” or a similar epithet, a prejudice that has led to the abject national decline of the sub-disciplines of comparative politics, political sociology, and economic history, today produces articles and papers that we read with devouring energy because in them we have found a person who actually knows something about Afghanistan, or can read Pashto.

Almost daily the papers report the government crying out for speakers of Pashto, Uzbek, Arabic, and other presumably esoteric languages, yet the interest is once again not in the intrinsic merits of studying and knowing these things, but how the knowers of the esoteric and the exotic can be used by intelligence agencies—agencies that are themselves hostage to whatever may be in the minds of the top policymakers making the key decisions as administrations come and go in Washington. The most likely beneficiary of the sudden new interest in South Asia and the Middle East is the National Security Education Program, which in its requirement of government service (and preferably national security service) is a major step backward from the early cold war years when massive Ford Foundation funding created one “area center” after another. That national program was premised on the cold war need for knowing the enemy, true, but it placed the intelligence and national security function where it belonged, namely, as one possible career alternative for students, with most beneficiaries becoming scholars of the “areas” and languages they studied rather than intelligence operatives. I have been critical of leaders in that early period for the compromises they made with the government and the Central Intelligence Agency, but they look like seers and geniuses in the current political atmosphere.

Certainly one useful and even critical role for the Social Science Research Council today would be once again to spell out the requirements of a national program that would simultaneously begin to create the expertise that will be needed in the 21st century that is beginning to look like a very long and difficult one, and that would protect the academic and intellectual integrity of the project. In this way, social scientists can well serve the American people—and American democracy—in our current crisis.


Pp. 8-9 of the 1980 Penguin Books edition.
Gordon Prange, At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor (New York: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 539.