No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare

Those are the words of James Madison, cited by Fareed Zacharia as the anniversary of 9/11 approaches.

Nine years after 9/11, can anyone doubt that Al Qaeda is simply not that deadly a threat? Since that gruesome day in 2001, once governments everywhere began serious countermeasures, Osama bin Laden’s terror network has been unable to launch a single major attack on high-value targets in the United States and Europe. While it has inspired a few much smaller attacks by local jihadis, it has been unable to execute a single one itself. Today, Al Qaeda’s best hope is to find a troubled young man who has been radicalized over the Internet, and teach him to stuff his underwear with explosives.

I do not minimize Al Qaeda’s intentions, which are barbaric. I question its capabilities. In every recent conflict, the United States has been right about the evil intentions of its adversaries but massively exaggerated their strength. In the 1980s, we thought the Soviet Union was expanding its power and influence when it was on the verge of economic and political bankruptcy. In the 1990s, we were certain that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear arsenal. In fact, his factories could barely make soap.

The error this time is more damaging. September 11 was a shock to the American psyche and the American system. As a result, we overreacted.

An overreaction in response to national shock may reasonably describe what happened, but it doesn’t explain what made America so susceptible to the shock or so ripe for such an overreaction.

America suffers from a cultural deficit that is largely a product of geography. Cultural self-awareness depends significantly on the ability to understand ones own culture as it appears from the outside, yet most Americans swim inside the fishbowl of this culture with only the vaguest sense of what lies beyond. This profound insularity makes America perpetually vulnerable to global shocks of any kind.

The planners of the 9/11 attacks seemed to grasp a core dimension of this culture: that television is the primary medium that shapes a cohesive American identity. The attack of the World Trade Center thus became an attack on America by being televised.

As a culture that understands itself through television, America grasps images more readily than ideas.

The collapsing Twin Towers meant all sorts of things. It meant that the tallest buildings in New York City turned out to lack the structural integrity they might have been expected to have. It meant that security procedures in American airports were wholly inadequate. It meant that successive US governments had operated with a false sense of impunity as their policies bred hostility across the Middle East.

Yet few of these practical or abstract meanings registered as clearly in American consciousness as did the imagery of American power suddenly made impotent.

A crudely simplistic response — they made us look weak so now we’re going to show ’em we’re strong — thus won national support with barely more than a squeak of dissent.

“They” became a category into which all manner of “enemies” could be haphazardly squeezed: al Qaeda, Islamic extremists, the Taliban, Muslims, Arabs, enemies of Israel, anti-Americans, haters of freedom. Understanding who they were, mattered less than being convinced that they were out to get us.

Having signed on to the idea that war was unavoidable, few questioned a concomitant assumption: that a war of supposed necessity would — for the average American — necessitate no personal involvement.

We could watch, cheer, even march against it, or be utterly indifferent, because the function of this war was as much as anything else to perpetuate the anesthetized state of consciousness that sustains the American way of life.

“Go shopping” was not a throwaway remark from a stumbling president. It was a religious injunction to a population that had been trained to value material comfort more than life itself. The shock of 9/11 might have provoked an overreaction but it also proved to be a shock that could quite easily be absorbed; a shock that far from waking up America, barely interrupted its sleep.

Where else could the most massive expansion in government seen in recent decades have so been readily supported by people who profess an abhorrence for big government?

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8 thoughts on “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare

  1. dickerson3870

    RE: “…the tallest buildings in New York City turned out to lack the structural integrity they might have been expected to have…” – Woodward
    MY COMMENT: I wonder if Al Qaeda knew that the fireproofing (some of it containing asbestos) on the structural steel of the Twin Towers was failing (flaking off), and that the Port Authority had plans to begin repairing it but had not yet gotten around to it. The lead architect claimed that the buildings would/should have withstood the impact of the planes and the ensuing fires if the fireproofing had been in good shape.

  2. rosemerry

    The “organization” AlQaida has been grossly overblown in importance. The reasons US overreacted could be 1; Bush had to be the strong tough dude 2. The US had only once had an attack on its soil ie Pearl harbour, and could not believe anyone would dare attack such a delightful, gentle, non-violent, tolerant land, which had only attacked fifty countries since WW2.

  3. Ian Arbuckle

    Paul Woodward, you write “An overreaction in response to national shock may reasonably describe what happened, but it doesn’t explain what made America so susceptible to the shock or so ripe for such an overreaction”

    First you have to buy the whole ball of wax. Al Qaeda, the ex CIA Bin Laden in Afghanistan planning the destruction…., 19 mostly Saudis, given visas trained to fly in the US, followed around the country by Israeli communications and explosives specialists from Mossad…. Buildings collapsing when they should not, buildings collapsing when they are not even hit by planes… Proven traces of thermite in residues… lease holders collecting billions, because they acquired the buildings just weeks before the event mindfully insuring them against just such an outcome… safes with billions in bullion being emptied… most sensitive documents FBI, CIA, on cases that are directly related to just such “conspiracies” being vaporized in the Pentagon and WTC buildings…. Along with vaporized aircraft engines and parts disappearing down a whole to small for the aircraft in question at the Pentagon…. Fictional phone calls from passengers on the one plane which was supposed to have crashed… Put orders on the airlines and insurance companies paying millions. Suppression of facts, evidence destruction and tampering and a total lack of forensic investigation … a whitewash commission, and all this you have to swallow to start talking about what 9-11 is.

    Until the USA investigates properly the real responsibility for the events of 9-11 it will go on being led by the nose into any dubious venture such as the last two wars or the orchestrated “collapse” and Government reflation of financial institutions, all of which since 9-11 have proved extremely profitable and a cause to accrue even further power to a small and diabolical elite.

    In short it still amazes me beyond words that anyone can accept that the events of 9-11 have the slightest thing to do with what people were and are expected to believe happened based on what was reported in the MSM that day and since.

    It was not 4 aircraft that were high jacked that day but the common sense and the ability to reason of an entire nation it seems and what is worse is that they go on being hoodwinked again and again, and they continue to believe whatever they are told by people proven to be lying, be they chairmen of the FED, Sec. of State, or even the President….. and so it goes on… the American voluntary and self imposed necessity for self delusion.

    There was no “over reaction” it was the necessary false flag event to justify launching the “war with no end” against the enemy with no country. And so the Orwellian nightmare has begun. America has been being programmed for years to see the enemy always abroad and their government and military / security authorities at home as their protector rather than their abuser despite warnings of the dangers of a vast military industrial complex, and despite assassinations of leaders who saw and might have threatened that status quo. The Americans are indoctrinated to “duck and cover” against distant and evil threats from despicable foreign entities that would threaten their way of life, true or false, and to counter them knowing that a strong offence is the best defence…. hence the thousands of bases around the world acting as the global enforcer of a cut-throat corporate gang. All this is to keep 1% of the US households in control of 42.7 % of the nation’s wealth and growing while the bottom 80% has 16% of the wealth to share, the bottom 50% has about 2% but they can dream.

  4. Norman

    For a Country such as the United States of America, with all the scientific abilities at its disposal, why is it that there hasn’t been a thorough type of investigation that can stand the scrutiny demanded of such an event as 9-11? What really is perplexing, is the fact that that all the evidence was disposed of, not leaving any trace of which to be tested for any other reason then the officially stated version?

    I wonder how the Empire State Building was able to withstand the impact of being hit by an Air Force bomber, yet didn’t fall? Also, why did Building # 7 in the World Trade Center complex collapse in similar manner as the #’s 1 & 2? The official reason of fire isn’t valid enough. It doesn’t make sense that these 3 buildings would fall in the same manner as other structures that we have seen over the years of controlled demolition, of which are hundreds of examples, which by the way, have been gutted, before detonation.

    The present connection being made by Right Wing/Fox/Pundits/and assorted others, that the W.T.C. site is sacred ground, equating it with Pearl Harbor, is the biggest P.R. scam we have ever seen. Anyone who doesn’t buy the official version, is termed to be a conspiracy nut. To which I would ask them, who just bought the rights to the W.T.C. prior to the destruction? Who has played out this game all these years? Who advocates the rejection of & is trying to incite against the Mosque being built 2 long blocks away from the site? Is there a connection between the Proposed building of the mosque and the financial backer who is also a vested owner of Fox News? Is he playing both sides in the dispute? Where does the Jewish connection come into play? Are the Neocons, who beat the drums of War in Iraq connected? Are the Israeli’s adding their 2 cents worth here? The Islamophobia being spewed about today in America, with the blessing of Israel a cover for something bigger? Why is Israel the # 3 listed behind Russia & China as having the most spies in the U.S.A.? These are questions that are not being answered, to the American public’s satisfaction, by the pundits, the News Papers, (reason why nobody is buying them anymore, perhaps?), due I would say to the fact that no longer are the people as isolated in what they read. The old methods of censorship, control of information, spin that was the mainstay of the 20th Century, isn’t relevant now in the 21st Century. Perhaps sooner than later, the forces to be reckoned with will emerge from their cocoon and realize we are all in this together, not just the so called chosen few.

  5. John Sp.

    “…most massive expansion in government seen in recent decades have so been readily supported by people who profess an abhorrence for big government?” – Woodward

    I’m glad Mr. Woodward brings this up. It’s the first time I’ve seen anyone mention this thought that has often crossed my mind.

    It seems that the people who talk about the evil of big government basically just prefer that money go to war-making capability instead of social programs. And they’re so often so proud to call themselves Christians!

  6. Colm O' Toole

    “They” became a category into which all manner of “enemies” could be haphazardly squeezed: al Qaeda, Islamic extremists, the Taliban, Muslims, Arabs, enemies of Israel, anti-Americans, haters of freedom.

    Of course this reached its peak when Hugo Chavez was accused by several right wing rags of being a member of Al Qaeda.

    As a European the American sense of itself is always very dismaying to look at. It mainly fails to view itself as one large nation in a world of large nations. This lack of realism is one of the factors responsible for the massive failures of The War on Terror. I think the only other country that exhibits this is Israel, which could explain why the two are so close.

    Naturally Americans cannot be blamed for this it more likely seems to be a result of their geographic position isolated by oceans. From Germany you can drive to Iraq in 7-8 hours if you wanted to. Some parts of Europe are a 30 minute boat ride away from the African continent. Also of course the border with Russia is a blurry thing. You travel to eastern Berlin and still see huge buildings and bridges with Soviet architecture.

  7. james carlisle

    Paul Woodward needs to do a little homework on the inexplicable events of 9/11 before repeating the discredited official version. In particular, perhaps he can explain how the perpetrators of the crime were able to suspend the laws of physics to cause the collapse of WTC 7 (see NIST’s final report on the Collapse of WTC & and David Ray Griffin’s remarkable and rigorous examination of the “Mysterious Collapse”).

  8. Christopher Hoare

    Yes, Paul, you are perfectly correct in that TV has crafted and slanted the US self-image (and of course, the garbage spewed out by Hollywood as well). But it hasn’t been a new phenomenon since 2001, it started as soon as TV did when the commercial elite took control and poured their libertarian nonsense into empty heads.
    That the image of 9/11 is too powerful for Americans to accept at face value is also evident by the plethora of comments here. The official story is pathetic enough, without the need to chase hidden phantoms; the state that has created hundreds of thousands, millions, of corpses around the world, before 1963 even, had a tiny pay back. The loss of those lives on 9/11 are recognized as tragic by all of us — when are Americans going to recognize their killing spree as equally tragic?

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