Some images are forever burned in our minds. The full-size jet crashing into the World Trade Center, the billowing ball of flame, and the imminent, smoking, collapse of the Twin Towers will never leave our memory. As the nation watches in stunned amazement, New York digs through the rubble of the Financial District, epicenter of our global economic power. In Washington, D.C., more work crews with dogs and robots dig through the rubble of the Pentagon, epicenter of our global military might. In an instant, our worldview of the invulnerability of Fortress America has been shattered as fully and finally as the once-proud symbols of that might.
In what will surely be recorded in history as a classic example of guerilla warfare, someone, somewhere, masterminded a brilliant plan to simultaneously hijack not one or two, but four full-size passenger jets from East Coast departure points. Details continue to be revealed, but at this time, it appears that the hijackers were able to elude security checks, smuggle weapons onboard, take over the controls of the planes, and crash them into specific, high-profile targets in horrific suicide assaults on the bastions of America’s economic and military power. While shock and outrage flood the country, our political leaders speak boldly of retribution and vengeance. But against whom will the mighty fist of America’s military response fall?
Speculation runs rampant that Osama bin Laden, the shadowy leader of an Islamic terrorist network and a self-proclaimed enemy of the United States, is behind the attacks. At this time, bin Laden is believed to be harbored in Afghanistan, sheltered by the sympathetic leaders of the country’s ruling Taliban religious faction. President Bush has promised the people of America that he will track down and conquer “the enemy.” But that is far easier said than done.
If it is bin Laden, and if he is hiding in Afghanistan, we can look to recent history to gauge our chances. This tiny country, nestled in the rugged canyons of the massive Hindu Kush mountains, is no stranger to armed conflict with overwhelmingly powerful foes. For a decade the guerilla fighters of Afghanistan stood against the tanks, rockets, fighter jets, bombers, helicopter gunships, mines and machine guns of the Soviet Union. During that conflict, we helped the Afghans and sent our own guns, mines, and Stinger missiles to what we then called “freedom fighters.” Much to everyone’s surprise, they won. Well, if you can call losing a million people from a tiny David standing against a global military Goliath, a win, then they won. The Russians, who share a border with Afghanistan across which their tanks rumble unchallenged, could not pry these people from the deep folds of their mountains. Nor will we. We can rain death and destruction down on Afghanistan, and maybe even kill bin Laden, in our version of “an eye for an eye” vengeance. But we will not win. And should bin Laden fall, we can rest equally assured that a hundred, a thousand, others will rise to take his place.
The President also says that we will ask the world to join us in our hunt. But again, his words are far easier to speak than to accomplish. The United States, under the leadership of the Bush administration, has not been much of a global team player lately. We have, like bullies in the schoolyard, told the rest of the world that we will not go along with the Kyoto treaty on climate change, that we will develop an anti-missile shield regardless of the long-standing ABM treaty, that we will not go along with a ban on biological weapons. We walked out of the global conference on racism, sent billions of dollars worth of helicopter gunships to patrol the skies of Colombia, and rain herbicides down on the fields and rivers of Peru’s farmers, attempting to eradicate a coca crop that would not exist but for our own nation’s willingness to buy the products of that crop.
And now, in our shock, grief, and anger, we are somehow hoping that the folly of our isolationist, nationalistic stances on global issues will be forgotten and forgiven and the world will unite behind us as we launch our horrible vengeance. It’s OK for us to arm and fund terrorists around the world, but when we ourselves are the victims of a terrorist act, we naively believe that the world will forget our mines, which litter their fields killing and maiming their children, will forgive the mass defoliation of their lands, will ignore the illnesses and deaths resulting from our actions. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.
Perhaps you, too, saw the footage of Palestinians dancing in the streets at the news of the attacks. They are not alone. Around the world, more than a few people in more than a few countries are not crying over America’s misfortune. They feel some righteous justice has been brought to bear so that we are finally tasting the medicine of horror and destruction that so many people, in so many countries, live with on a daily basis. For some strange reason, we thought it would never happen here. We thought that we could spread a deadly rain of bullets, bombs, and chemicals down on others, but that the oceans would somehow protect us from retribution. We were wrong. And we will be wrong again if we wage a global war of retribution—a war we cannot win.
Out of all the “talking heads” that filled the major network broadcasts, only one, who was not an American, by the way, suggested that perhaps it is time for this country to take a hard look at the way we interact with the global community, the practices and results of our foreign policies. I agree. We are engendering dangerous levels of hatred around the globe these days, and from the sound of things, we are going to take steps that will increase, not decrease, that hatred. We are, like the bully in the global schoolyard, increasingly throwing our economic and military weight around in a threatening, not supporting, manner. When the walls of the World Trade Center came crashing down, so did our illusions of invulnerability. We can, and most likely will, thrash out with our fists of fire and steel. But a wiser move would be to take a long look in our mirror as a nation and ask ourselves, “How long can we fight?” And then, hard as it may be, we must take the first steps toward changing America into a country that will engender mutual respect and unity from the global community instead of even more hatred and terror.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.