World War III?
Preventability of future acts of terror
September 21, 2001
Why did this happen? What was the real cause? Who was responsible?
We know that the nineteen terrorists were what the historians call the "proximate
cause", the last link in the hellish chain of events that led to the
most devastating act of terrorism in history. But we are rarely satisfied
with the last link. We desire to explore the "real", and more
We don't study the remote causes for the sake of scientific curiosity.
In the wake of a disaster, for instance, we look for those remote causes
that might help us decide whether it could have been prevented. For this
reason, we do not count the invention of heavier-than-air flying machines
as a remote cause of the events of September 11th, 2001, although in a purely
objective sense, without airplanes this disaster would not exist. Instead,
we focus on the holes in our airport security. Was it wise, we ask with
the benefit of the hindsight, to entrust the security of citizens to corporations,
which are by definition interested in the purely formal rationality of the
market? After all, we do not put corporations in charge of our national
security. Both the exclusion of the invention of plans and the inclusion
of airport security in the roster of the remote causes of the terrorist
attacks are guided by one principle: preventability of future acts of terror.
How wide do we cast our net? How far do we open the legs of the compass
to draw the concentric circles of remote causes for an event? This appears
to be more an art than a science. The real causes that bring about any event
are infinite. But causes that critical observers enumerate for any event
are few -- and the fewer the better. Critical observers of every age seek
elegant and parsimonious explanations for the events of their times. This
necessitates a relentless pruning of the less important remote causes. "Important",
however, is in the eye of the beholder. New generations of historians focus
on links ignored by their predecessors. Revisionist historians are scandalized
(if secretly delighted) at the size of the blind spot in the vista of previous
generations. Already, I can envision future historians scratching their
collective head at the fuzziness of our focus on two important clusters
of remote causes for the terrible events of last week.
The first set of such causes is related to the motivation of the terrorists.
There are those whose motivational theories amount to no more than racist
collective labels. The liberal minded among us desire to exonerate the human
race from such atrocities. This group tends to write the perpetrators off
as insane. But we know that scores of men who deliberately planned and executed
such sophisticated operations could not have been crazy. Some children (or
those who think like them) cite jealousy of our prosperity, liberties and
democracy as motivations. As if the perpetrators were not already comfortably
in. As if they could not have stayed and joined the party instead of wrecking
it. Why did they hate us so? Was it racial bigotry or a fanatical rejection
of the modern world? Was it a form of nihilism masquerading as religious
conviction? Were they long humiliated desperados, in search of a single
loud moment of self-assertion? Could it be that a combination of all of
the above mindsets was at work? Are there other motivational factors of
which we are as yet unaware?
Admittedly, It is difficult to read the minds of men, even when they
are not dead. But reading the actual thought processes of the dead terrorists
is not at issue. We can study the sub-culture that nourished these men,
and arrive at reasonable approximations of a "typical" suicide
bomber. Such models cannot come from the wild guesstimations of our TV pundits.
We must know more about the perpetrators, ideology, class origins and status
group. What social and economic chances for a normal life existed for them?
Was it strong persuasion of a purist faith that convinced otherwise normal
men to self-immolate? Did the possible erosion of a sense of self, play
a role in their decision to extinguish an already dim beacon? Future generations
will wonder at our lack of interest in the psychology of our nemesis. They
will be baffled why we were not even bothered by the fact that our presumed
Islamic fanatics would engage in the mortal sin of drinking at the eve of
their final act of religious sacrifice.
Or may be all of these questions are irrelevant. Why should we even bother
about divining a psychology or sociology for terrorism if we are going to
wipe the whole bunch of "evil-doers" off the face of the earth,
any way? Because I don't think that President Bush's annihilation-plan will
be much of a success. In the meanwhile, even our bellicose military leaders
do not pretend that the success in the war effort shall guarantee our safety
at home. They admit that terrorists can not be all exterminated in the short
run and that a determined suicide bomber cannot be stopped. These days we
have grown super-mindful of air-travel; but what are the odds that the terrorists
will repeat their deadly combination of simple weapons and sophisticated
planning. They could reverse the combination. We have not even seen the
kind of terrorist attacks we have feared for a long time. How ready are
we to deal with biological and chemical agents and portable nuclear devices?
For how long will the flutter of flags offset a ruined economy, a vanished
prosperity and the emergence of a virtual police state?
The second set of causes that are doggedly ignored these days relate
to our own image. How does the world view us, and why? How does the Middle
East conceive of America? Are these impressions subject to change, or are
they natural consequences of an ineluctable constellation of alliances in
the region? Why is it taboo to address this issue? Someone recently suggested
to me that talking about our image in the Middle East amounts to blaming
the victim. It is interesting that people are talking about the advisability
of building skyscrapers. You take that line of reasoning and you can pretty
soon arrive at the question: "What were the World Trade Center towers
doing on New York harbor?" Some might remember that the classic example
for blaming the victim was the question raised after the Pearl Harbor: What
was Pearl Harbor doing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? And yet, discussing
the remote causes regarding architecture do not seem to count as "blaming
the victim", but, somehow, questions regarding our foreign policy do.
In my view, our image problems in the world are at least as important
as airport and high-rise security in the roster of remote causes of the
terrorist attacks of last week as. We have more image problems than Dorian
Gray. We need a face-lift and a liposuction and a crash diet all at once.
But our leaders are instead binging. Just the other day, Vice-President
Cheney characterized our future tactics as "mean" and "nasty".
Our leaders are announcing to the world that the CIA will resume the practice
of collaborating with all kinds of thugs and unsavory characters. I hope
that the scraps of information gathered from our cast of torturers, rapists
and drug runners would be worth defacing of our national image and increasing
the pool of our sworn enemies all over the world.
For the above reasons, I am convinced that our security lies in a combination
of swift justice meted out to the perpetrators of the recent terrorist crimes,
a massive de-escalation of tensions that gave rise to them and a close look
at the remote causes of what happened. I have a feeling that our leaders
disagree with me there.
In the foregoing, I have underlined two clusters of remote causal links
that could help us manage the threat of terrorism. These are but a fraction
of infinite clusters of remote causes. If the current events are allowed
to run their course, they may lead to World War III and bring on our heads
the thermonuclear disaster with which we had a few nearly missed rendezvous
during the cold war. Should this come to pass, historians of the future
-- assuming the human race would survive such a war and be able to afford
historians -- would string together different clusters of remote causes.
They will probably be less interested in prevention and more willing to
indulge the human interest in drama and the aesthetics of symmetry. They
will be more artistic in connecting the causal dots.
Sing, muse, an account of our history from the future:
Blame it on Students
The Great War (WWI) started in Sarajevo. It was triggered on June 28th
1914 by a Serbian student with nationalist ideals. On that date, Gavrilo
Princip assassinated the Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austro-Hungarian
Empire along with his queen Sophia. The empire was shocked, saddened and
angered. Many historical chances were lost to keep the dominos from falling.
A month later, Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia and within
the next three months Germany had taken on Russia, France, and Belgium,
and, Britain had declared war on Germany. Later, other countries including
the Ottoman Empire and the United States were drawn in, and the Great War
became the first universal war that man had known. Millions of men died
and entire cities were bombed and gassed using the new technologies of warfare.
Sixteen years after H.G Wells' prophecy, "War of the Worlds" had
come to pass.
The Third World War started in Jerusalem eighty-one years later. It was
launched on November 4th of 1995 by another idealistic student. On that
date Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel.
Rabin who had signed a historic peace treaty with the Palestinians, was
leaving a rally, whose title was soon to be reversed: "Peace Yes, Violence
No". Rabin's successors lacked his will, mandate, and vision. They
allowed the peace process to erode and crumble. Within six years many historic
chances were lost and hostilities were allowed to spiral out of control.
In 1997 yet another group of idealistic students (Taliban) rose to power
in Afghanistan. In 2001 the leader of an extremist Islamic organization
who had been trained by Americans to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan,
emerged as the avenger of the Arabs. His kamikaze devotees flew hijacked
planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, causing thousands of
American casualties. Americans were shocked, saddened and angered. American
leaders started wars not only in Afghanistan, but also in Lebanon and Palestine.
They conducted assassinations and launched covert operations in other countries
of the Middle East.
The public sentiments soon turned against the American interventions.
The backlash sent the Pakistani government -- that had been pushed into
cooperation with the Americans -- into a tailspin. The new radical junta
in Pakistan defied both American and Indian ultimatums. A nuclear exchange
between India and Pakistan drew in more countries. China came to the aid
of Pakistan and the block of Muslim countries, forming the Eurasian alliance.
Russia remained with the American-led bloc of the countries on the coast
of the Atlantic Ocean, later known as Oceania. The economic prosperity
and cherished liberties of Oceania evaporated in the face of Eurasian
domestic terrorism. Explosions were often heard but people were too numb
to care who was behind them. Seventeen years after Orwell's prophecy, 1984
had at long last arrived.
Ahmad Sadri is currently chairperson of the Department of Sociology
at Lake Forest College, Illinois. Homepage