Monday, April 19, 2004

Oklahoma City, 9/11, and the Face of Terror

[Beginning an open-ended series]

Part 1: The Apocalyptic Asymmetry of April 19

Before there was 9/11, there was April 19. Understanding the former requires coming to terms with the latter.

We all remember what we were doing when we heard the news on Sept. 11, 2001. It was one of those dates that burns itself into our memories. Likewise, for most of us, with April 19. Both times, for that matter.

First there was 1993 and the burning of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco. Two years later came the reaction in Oklahoma City.

I remember it vividly. Both times, I first heard about it on the news -- CNN, I'm pretty sure -- because, well, that was my job. In 1993, I was news editor of the newspaper in Bellevue (then called the Journal American). I worked night shifts, which meant I usually got up around 10 a.m. I was in the habit of turning on CNN when I first got up just to make sure nothing big happened.

In 1993, the horror of it all was what imbedded itself: Knowing we were watching, as those compounds went ablaze, the obliteration of dozens of people, including a lot of children. And I remember thinking: We're going to pay for this. We're all going to pay for this.

I remember, both times, calling some of my close friends and family to tell them to turn on the news. On both days, I quickly showered, hopped in my car and went to work.

By 1995, I was the editorial-page assistant at the paper (having burned out on the news-editing gig) but it hit harder because I had also begun free-lancing by that time. Looking for subjects I thought were both important and overlooked, I had been working on writing stories about the far-right militia movement for the long-defunct Pacific Rim News Service, in no small part because I had a long background in dealing with both the organizers and the followers of these belief systems. I had been attending militia meetings and interviewing movement leaders for about nine months when April 19 hit.

I showed up at work early and watched the unfolding nightmare from Oklahoma on the screens around the newsroom. I told my bosses I was fairly certain that militiamen or white supremacists or someone like them had done this. They nodded and went with the wire service stories that wondered about a Middle East connection and described Arabs being pulled aside at airports. Most of my co-workers thought I was obsessing about the militias anyway.

The next day, as APBs went out for two men, one of them clearly Caucasian, no one was quite as dismissive. When a white militiaman named Tim McVeigh was taken into federal custody the next day, the editors put me to work on a story that ran on Sunday's front page. After all, one of the militia meetings I had attended was in Bellevue.

I always felt a lot of guilt about Oklahoma City. I had been writing about the militias for months and hadn't been sure whether or not to take them seriously. I had done my best to sell the stories, but they had only previously run in overseas publications; American editors hadn't been interested in them. I hadn't been sure if I could blame them. As hard as I had tried, it hadn't been enough, no matter what.

Now we all know better. But it seems, at times, that we've forgotten. 9/11 has made us forget -- when in fact it should make us remember all the better.

There's an important reason beyond merely the shock that we remember these dates -- both April 19 and Sept. 11. That's because, in fact, they are closely connected, not just in our national psyches but in the reality of the shape of the threat this nation faces for the foreseeable future, for at least the next century and perhaps beyond.

The Oklahoma City bombing, it must be understood, was the precursor to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

America is no longer threatened by the nation-states that have waged war against us, and each other, over the centuries. We are the world's dominant superpower, and no one would think of declaring war against us. It would be national suicide.

But that doesn't mean we are now immune to threats. Quite the contrary.

In terrorism -- asymmetrical, often idiosyncratic, sometimes the work of extremely small groups of highly motivated actors, and so flexible as to be largely immune to the threat of a traditional military action -- most Americans, for the foreseeable future, face the challenge most likely to not only threaten them and their loved ones with serious harm, but to undermine the very underpinnings of our society.

And it is such a threat precisely because we are at the apex of our military preeminence.

As Robert Jay Lifton observes in his new book Superpower Syndrome: America's Apocalyptic Confrontation With the World [condensed version here]:
More than mere domination, the American superpower now seeks to control history. Such cosmic ambition is accompanied by an equally vast sense of entitlement--of special dispensation to pursue its aims. That entitlement stems partly from historic claims to special democratic virtue, but has much to do with an embrace of technological power translated into military terms. That is, a superpower -- the world's only superpower -- is entitled to dominate and control precisely because it is a superpower.

The murderous events of 9/11 hardened that sense of entitlement as nothing else could have. Superpower syndrome did not require 9/11, but the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon rendered us an aggrieved superpower, a giant violated and made vulnerable, which no superpower can permit.

Indeed, at the core of superpower syndrome lies a powerful fear of vulnerability. A superpower's victimization brings on both a sense of humiliation and an angry determination to restore, or even extend, the boundaries of a superpower-dominated world. Integral to superpower syndrome are its menacing nuclear stockpiles and their world-destroying capacity.

... Unfortunately, our response was inseparable from our superpower status and the syndrome that goes with it. Any nation attacked in that way would have felt itself humiliated. But for the United States, with our national sense of being overwhelmingly powerful and unchallengeable, to have its major institutions violently penetrated created an intolerable breakdown of superpower invulnerability that was never supposed to happen, a contradiction that fed our humiliation.

Brown Professor P. Terrence Hopmann describes how these asymmetric threats work:
Asymmetrical conflict succeeds by playing on such fears. Terrorism strikes at innocent civilians going about their daily lives. It also flourishes on flexibility and uncertainty. The terrorist has the advantage of choosing the time, place, and means of attack. The targets are mostly symbolic, chosen for maximum psychological impact. The goal is to disrupt the lives of all. In fact, the capacity to instill in ordinary people the fear that they can be attacked anytime and anywhere, while doing just about anything, is the most important weapon terrorists have.

It's important to remember that such threats cannot be dealt with by ordinary military means. Of course, those who commit such horrendous acts of terrorism as those carried out on September 11 must be found and brought to justice, one way or another. But the classic riposte of retaliation against the homeland of the aggressor may not only be meaningless, it may be dangerous, creating additional terrorists who are even more dedicated and self-sacrificing than those who went before. And as long as the terrorists continue to find fertile soil on which to operate anywhere in the world, they will be able to survive, to react flexibly to circumvent whatever security measures the United States and other countries put in place, and to find new means to deliver terror at times and places of their own choosing.

It is not only Richard Clarke, of course, who believes the nation has gotten seriously off track in the war on terrorism thanks to the Iraq Misadventure. That view, in fact, is held by nearly every serious authority on combating terrorism. Because they know what terrorism is really about.

It isn't just about al Qaeda -- though obviously that is one of the most lethal of the threats facing us. But it can also emanate from extremely well-financed cults, for example, or tiny cells of highly motivated white supremacists. In the larger picture of whence terrorism emanates, Iraq has always been a tiny presence at best. The "axis of evil" is an ephemeral construct that only vaguely deals with the reality of terrorism.

The Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in a report to Congress on the threat of the terrorist use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW), identified six common characteristics of the modern asymmetrical terrorist:
Some of these characteristics are common to many groups, and others begin to etch a profile that law enforcement, emergency response and intelligence officials should consider carefully as they were grapple with the threat and consequences of terrorist use of chemical or biological weapons. The six characteristics we identified are: charismatic leadership, no external constituency, apocalyptic ideology, loner or splinter group, a sense of paranoia and grandiosity, and defense aggression. Of these six characteristics, the two that were present in all of the cases of actual CBW use warrant thorough examination: no outside constituency and a sense of paranoia and grandiosity.

Cults, loners and splinter groups are by their very nature often isolated from society. Lacking outside constituencies, these types of terrorist entities operate without any moderating influences. The Aum Shrinrikyo, R.I.S.E., the Rasneeshees and the Christian Identity group, the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), are all groups or individuals that fit this pattern. Another characteristic of these groups is their apocalytic vision. They lived in the confines of their own organization or self created world without the social constraints of society. They believed that they were superior to others who operated outside their world vision. When challenged, these groups all asserted defensive aggression. In the case of the Aum Shrinrikyo, they conducted their attack on the train lines crossing central Tokyo right near the main police station just as law enforcement authorities were closing in on them. All of these behavioral traits served to melt away the normal social restraints that keep people for employing chemical and biological weapons to get their way in the world.

In the cases examined in Toxic Terror, key group members exhibited a sense of paranoia and grandiosity. The sense of paranoia caused group members to act impulsively with little regard for the consequences of their actions. The sense of grandiosity allowed members to believe they could survive any adverse physical or social implications of their actions. Perceiving themselves as superior, they believed themselves above the earthly implications of causing indiscriminate mass murder of innocent people. Moreover, by inflicting mass death on others they affirmed in their minds their power and superiority. This is a very dangerous, self-reinforcing cycle. Fortunately, as noted before, the people who think this way tend to be amateur terrorists unable to harness the technical complexity of chemical and biological weapons and maintain effective group cohesion to fulfill their twisted vision. While the rise of groups interested in using chemical and biological weapons has increased in the 1990s, they have distinctive limitations that tend to hamper their capabilities to undertake the technically daunting task of a chemical or biological weapons attack.

The threat also extends to nuclear weapons, as demonstrated by the Aum Shinrikyo Cult that attacked the Tokyo subways with Sarin in 1995:
Another remarkable aspect of the Aum illustration is the numerous approaches the organization undertook to fulfill its goal of attaining a nuclear weapon. Not only did the group go to astonishing lengths to mine uranium in Australia and to develop laser enrichment processes in Japan, but at the same time there is indication that Aum was intending to work with plutonium as well. In addition to attempts to develop a nuclear weapon of their own, Aum officials appear to have been equally active in pursuing the purchase of a nuclear warhead from Russia. Such varied activity is in indication to security officials that no single method of nuclear acquisition should be assumed to be out of the sights of terrorist organizations. If terrorists are ambitious enough to attempt it, then security officials should at least know about their efforts. Even if a particular terrorist approach appears unlikely to succeed, it is still an important factor in threat assessment because it provides valuable insight into the mindset and motivations behind the organization.

In addition to Aum's diverse attempts at acquiring a nuclear weapon, the group was simultaneously seeking out a wide range of weapons capabilities. Besides nuclear and chemical weapons, Asahara made efforts to develop a biological arsenal, equipped with anthrax bacteria, botulism toxin and the Ebola virus. There were considerable efforts to augment the group's conventional weapons supply as well by adding tanks, helicopters, and the AK-74 rifles to name a few. Asahara was also interested in radical alternative weapon designs involving high-powered lasers, earthquake generation through magnetic fields, and the notorious and highly classified Tesla inventions. The combination of all of these efforts resulted in less of a focus on each individual project. If the detonation of a nuclear weapon were to be the paramount ambition of a terrorist organization, how much would the rate and extent of their activities have been increased in comparison to the Aum efforts?

This is why Oklahoma City is an important part of understanding 9/11: It was, after all, before 9/11 the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

The 169 deaths today shrinks in comparison to 9/11's 3,000 ... but then, recall that the most recent al Qaeda attack -- the train bombings in Spain -- claimed a rather similar 190 lives. Indeed, smaller death tolls remain more likely, no matter who's attacking. And 9/11 wasn't necessarily a one-off; if someone gets ahold of a nuclear weapon, the results could easily top the 9/11 toll. The respective death tolls shouldn't camouflage the nature of the threat.

And the nature of terrorism requires us to be agile and flexible, to rely on our brains, and less so our brawn. So far, we have been failing the test. Indeed, we appear not only to be inspiring more terrorism, we appear to be on the verge of replicating the mistakes that brought us Oklahoma City -- but this time on a global scale.

And that is the most serious threat of all.

Next: Waco in Iraq

[Cross-posted at The American Street.]

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