Hitchens Takes a False Step; What Kind of Nazis Are the Al Qaeda?; Thievin’ Heroes

Written by Christopher Caldwell on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

Hitchens has taken his first false step in the terrorist war–or, better
put, he’s been proved wrong by events for the first time. Up till now Hitchens,
astonishingly enough, has been as reliable a guide to the war against terrorism
as we have. His characterization of the terrorists as "death squads"
and the movement as "fascism with an Islamic face" is not just rhetoric.
It captures something essential about the long-term goals of the war on terror.

When Hitchens
began to take this line, Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy began
to whine about the root causes of the attack, asserting that Osama bin Laden
"could not get volunteers to stuff envelopes if Israel had withdrawn from
Jerusalem like it was supposed to–and the US stopped the sanctions and
the bombing on Iraq." Aside from being outright baloney, it was an unfortunate
choice of words. Hitchens replied that Husseini’s metaphor–back then,
it was a metaphor–was obscene. It "neatly synthesised all three facets
of denial. ‘Envelope-stuffing’ reduces the members of al-Qa’eda
to the manageable status of everyday political activists with a programme; the
same image obstructs the recognition of the full impact of the attack; the diplomatic
measures that supposedly could have warded off the atrocity become, by an obvious
transference, the source of responsibility for it. This is something more like
self-hatred than appeasement."

Goes to show
how things change in the course of a terrorist war. This seemed like an eminently
sensible riposte three or four weeks ago. But now that we’re in a stage
of the war where anthrax is being delivered through the mail, it’s no longer
true that the image of envelope-stuffing "obstructs the recognition of
the full impact of the attack." Nowadays it looks like a malign kind of
envelope-stuffing is one of the big things Al Qaeda does for a living.

Or someone
does for a living. If the anthrax wave was set in motion by Al Qaeda–and,
given that letters have come from venues as remote from each other as Malaysia
and Trenton, it appears there’s coordination from some terrorist group–then
we can expect more cases soon. We know that such organizations like to attack
on several fronts simultaneously, and anthrax takes time. The only cases we’ve
heard about involve those people who’ve begun to cough, and those who work
near them. This is an ideal environment for rumors to get started in.

Following the
first rule of flying–that turbulence is nothing to worry about unless the
stewardesses look worried about it–the most unsettling indicator in the
whole crisis thus far has been Dick Cheney’s removal to an "undisclosed
location" on most days. That’s because there are two types of crisis:
the ones in which knowledge makes you feel safer, and the ones in which knowledge
makes you feel more scared. The appearance of AIDS in the 1980s was an example
of the former kind of crisis. Once Rock Hudson died, monogamous farmers’
wives in rural Minnesota were panicked about catching the "bug" through
the air. The Cuban missile crisis was an example of the latter kind of crisis.
When I ask my parents about what they were doing on those days in 1962, I get
the impression that they didn’t even know the Cuban missile crisis was
happening. The people who were writing their wills and sending their children
out to the countryside were the people who worked in the Kennedy White House.
I sure hope Cheney’s hiding out doesn’t mean we’re in a situation
like that.


But let’s
return to Hitchens’ general point. There’s no reason to believe the
Arab world is immune to a human weakness we’ve seen elsewhere. I mean the
inability of whole societies to prevent criminal gangs from quickly terrorizing
a tiny plurality of a fragmented society into sympathy with them. That’s
the longest part of the fascist journey. From there, it’s an even shorter
route to leveraging the unity and violence of this willful splinter group into
control over the entirety of that society.

As I’ve
noted before, it’s a shame that Bush Sr. felt the need to describe Saddam
Hussein as Hitler. And it’s a shame the left has invoked Hitler to describe
everything from the Gingrich revolution to obstreperousness at school board
meetings. Because if the parallel hadn’t been so cheapened by overuse,
it would have great analytic power. Somehow the Nazis went from a few thousand
barbaric, half-literate, and–above all–ridiculous criminals in the
1920s, to exercising, in the 1940s, the most efficient domination over Europe
since Napoleon. There was a tipping point somewhere in the 1930s when the Nazis
went from a movement that could have been stopped with a gentle push to a movement
that had such irresistible momentum that it could be stopped only through an
horrific expenditure of lives.

Clearly something
like that happened when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. But how close are
we to that tipping point in the Muslim world as a whole? There are probably
only a dozen people in the country who know enough about it to say. Whether
or not this war can be confined to one against terrorism, or whether it will
involve taking on big, avowedly hostile Muslim states, is unclear. In other
words, anyone with eyes to see knows that Al Qaeda is a bunch of Nazis, but
we don’t know whether they’re a bunch of Nazis circa 1931 or a bunch
of Nazis circa 1941. What kind of war we have to fight will depend on whether
the irascible man on the street feels (a) a twinge of sympathy for the killers
that is overwhelmed by a sense of horror at the carnage they’ve wrought,
or (b) a twinge of discomfort for the victims that is overwhelmed by an anti-American

These viewpoints
aren’t as distant as they might look. If I had had to guess, before Sept.
11 I would have said that the power of such ideas was on the wane. The Ayatollah
Khomeini was dead, contacts between the Near East and the West had increased.
And yet, last weekend the former oil minister of Kuwait was interviewed in an
article for a London Arabic newspaper in which he attacked his own country’s
tepid support for America in the wake of the murder of 6000 Americans. Kuwait,
of course, would not exist were it not for the United States’ willingness
to sacrifice hundreds of lives to protect it from Iraq. It is the very last
place on Earth where one would assume that rulers would have to knuckle under
to popular pro-bin Laden pressure. A bad sign.

Burns Me Up

There has never
been anything in the annals of firefighting to match the sacrifice of the FDNY
before the Trade Center collapse. But it’s worth noting that firefighters
across the country are generally inclined toward sacrifice, and generally win
wild acclaim from the populace when push comes to shove.

That happened
in spades in the wake of the L.A. riots in 1992, where Daryl Gates’ LAPD
retreated into a snickering serves-’em-right seclusion while firemen worked
to save whole city blocks. Throughout the following year, firemen became the
authority of first resort in a lot of unarmed confrontations in minority neighborhoods
that didn’t trust the police.

I can think
of only one exception to this almost universal rule: our District of Columbia
fire department. The fire that resulted when an American Airlines plane hit
the Pentagon was one of the largest in the history of the mid-Atlantic, drawing
in firemen from several jurisdictions. Washington sent 120 firefighters across
the river to the Pentagon. Crews worked there for days. And how did DC’s
firemen distinguish themselves in our nation’s moment of need and despair?
They stole shit! As they left they started carrying off equipment that belonged
to the Arlington, VA, fire department–smoke-penetrating goggles, which
cost $15,000 apiece, and special breathing packs that cost $3500 per.

They got caught.
There was a confrontation between the District’s firemen and Arlington’s,
with the latter offering not to press charges provided all the equipment was
returned. That hasn’t happened yet. There’s a lot still missing. And
what is most galling to the Arlingtonians are the excuses the DCFD is peddling,
which are almost Talibanesque in their lameness. DCDeputy Mayor for Public
Safety Margret Nedelkoff Kellems told The Washington Post that
"equipment mix-ups are an issue when several jurisdictions respond to an
emergency." DC Fire Chief Ronnie Few was reading off the same spin sheet.
"During joint fire operations," Few said, "it is common for neighboring
fire jurisdictions to mix up equipment on the scene."

Yes, but the
key verb here is "mix up." You might accidentally take home equipment
identical to yours–but you wouldn’t take home equipment you hadn’t
brought. I’ve seen people accidentally pick up overcoats of the same size,
color and material as their own. I’ve never heard anyone say, "Oops!
Sorry I took your mink coat. I thought it was my nylon windbreaker."