Futile finger pointing

Posted: Mar 24, 2004 12:00 AM

This week?s September 11 hearings and former anti-terrorism staffer Richard Clarke?s just released charges of Bush Administration incompetence should be seen as the latest example of how America historically has reacted to the outbreak of a major war.

The sudden commencement of major war is so shocking and disruptive of normal civilized life that there seems to be a psychological need for the event to be explained in terms of treachery or stupendous incompetence. It is too disturbing to accept the reality -- that normal government officials, performing as they normally are expected to, were inadequate to avoid the catastrophe.

The considered judgment of history tends to find the causes of major wars to be the failure of existing systems of governance to properly manage newly emerging great historic forces. But in the moment of crises -- and often for decades afterward -- the melodramatic storylines prove the more compelling. The appeal of these human stories is only exacerbated by the cynical career survival instincts of the politicians both in and out of power at the moment of disaster.

After Pearl Harbor, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and General Walter Short, the top navy and army men at Pearl Harbor, were promptly scapegoated and fired. Ever since, and continuing to this day, books are published suggesting that President Franklin Roosevelt conspiratorially knew about the attack before it came. While the truth may never be completely known, the larger reality was that the rise of an expansionist, conquering Japanese empire in the Pacific (along with Hitler?s war making) made it almost inevitable that America would be forced into military response -- whether at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, or someplace else within the next few years. Ultimately what mattered was how FDR and America fought the war.

Similarly, the slogans and stated aims enunciated at the commencement of our wars are never the complete explanation. In our Civil War, the stated reason for belligerence by the Union -- to preserve the union, not to end slavery --- was never completely accurate and changed between 1861 and 1865. For the abolitionists in the North it was always about ending slavery. For the border state citizens who remained loyal to the union it was expressly not about ending slavery.

And for Abraham Lincoln -- "Honest Abe" -- the purpose of the war evolved. He started out proclaiming only the preservation of the Union. But he inched his way forward toward demanding the end of slavery -- first the limited emancipation of 1863, then the new birth of freedom in the Second Inaugural Address, and finally his demand for the 13th amendment abolishing slavery throughout the nation forever.

For us, today, the hearings and frantic finger pointing about September 11 are as silly and pointless as they are inevitable. The emergence of Islamist terrorism has been a good half century in the making -- from the theoretical writings by Egyptian intellectuals at the middle of the last century to September 11 and beyond. The clash between our civilization and that force was probably inevitable. If the events of September 11 had failed for any reason, there would have been another day and another disaster.

Obviously both the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration until September 11 failed to be seized of a sufficient sense of urgency in combating the danger. But it is unfair to blame them -- they existed in a different political world. If Clinton had tried to go to war in Afghanistan in 1998, both the Republicans and the major media would have run him out of town. So also, would a Bush invasion of Afghanistan in July of 2001 been rebuffed by the entire body politic.

Watching officials from both administrations pointing fingers at one another this week did not advance the great cause of national security -- but what else could they do under the circumstances? The purpose of the hearing is finger pointing.

Secretary of State Powell made a deeply revealing statement at yesterday?s hearing when he explained that trying to bring Pakistan to our side of the terrorist battle would have been futile prior to the September 11 attack. General Powell was precisely correct.

The political systems of both the United States and the rest of the world?s countries and organizations were simply not capable of finding the sense of urgency and political wherewithal to act sufficiently decisively -- prior to being attacked. It is the act of war itself that makes it politically possible for the attacked or threatened countries to go on a war footing. That is the historic and inevitable advantage of the aggressor.

Even today, neither John Kerry nor George Bush (nor any other politician or media outlet) is responding with urgency to the implications of the Madrid bombing. Who amongst us all are prepared to call for cancellation of all passenger trains and subway systems until we can institute an airport standard of security for train travel? It would seem excessive -- unless the terrorists blow up a subway train at rush hour in New York. Then we will act -- and point fingers at those who failed to act sooner.

Fifty years from now the ludicrous accusations of individual culpability being tossed around this week will be remembered for only one reason: that such self-serving theatrics delayed the time when we came together as a nation to more fully prepare for the worse terrorist onslaughts that are still ahead of us.