America's Black September
Srdja Trifkovic
September 14, 2001

The horror in New York was literally awesome. The Pentagon fire was almost a sideshow by comparison, horrible and lethal, but familiar: We've seen similar footage from Beirut, Belfast, Baghdad, or Belgrade. The World Trade Center was of a different order of magnitude. The Titanic comes to mind: an epic tragedy laden with symbolism, to be dissected by intellectuals and elaborated by popular culture gurus for decades to come. Whatever its motives and its significance this was a crime against all of us.

Having stated the obvious let us look at the implications.


One way of dealing with anger is to lash out, but the horror of New York cannot be assuaged with amber flashes in some God-forsaken Afghan valley, compliments of the U.S. Air Force. In the aftermath of bomb attacks on two East African embassies in 1998, revenge proved counterproductive: In Afghanistan it was ineffective, while in Sudan it was misdirected. More importantly, the awful thought is that retaliation may be ordered and executed by those same people, or their cloned heirs, whose actions have caused the murderous reaction abroad. As Michael Pierce put it, nothing could keep his gorge from rising when General Wesley Clark began to pontificate about the need for a strong response: "it was this wretched man who whined loudly that we hadn't murdered enough Serbs. Who was overseer of the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. Who armed Islamic terrorists by the literal tens of thousands . . . Today we got to see some Christians a little closer to home, running from burning buildings that had been hit by terror bombers. Thanks, Wes, we owe you." Clark and his ilk do not know -- let alone care for -- Thomas Paine's warning that "sanguinary punishments corrupt mankind." Randomly violent and indiscriminate revenge in which more innocent civilians will die is exactly what the attackers want, and expect. It would be unworthy of the victims to strike at anyone but the verifiable culprits.


Whoever did it, the Palestinians are the chief and immediate losers. For the first time in decades, despite the lynching of Israeli conscripts, the shooting of settlers, and the suicide bomb attacks, the public sympathy for the Palestinians has been rising. As Arab teenagers are shot in the streets for throwing stones, Israel has been losing the public relations battle. This is likely to change. The impression that we are now in the same boat with Israel is mistaken, but it will be promoted nevertheless. Jubilation in the streets of Nablus and Ramallah at the news from across the ocean will prove costly for the Palestinian agenda, at least in the short term. The peace process will remain stalled, and ever more stringent Israeli countermeasures will be approved. The need for a new American policy in the Middle East will be blurred, at least temporarily.


At the technical level, September 11 demonstrates the limits of intelligence gathering even in this ultra-high-tech age. The US intelligence community is simply not designed to counter this kind of attack. Its fundamental architecture was created more than 50 years ago to counter the communist threat. The question is whether this structure, which has remained largely unchanged for decades and remains primarily focused on military threats, can deal with the challenge of transnational, non-state adversaries. Military force and economic sanctions may work against state-sponsored terrorism, but to counter an essentially private operation a new understanding of the threat is needed.


At the fundamental level, however, September 11 shows that the real and present danger is with us now, and will remain with us for as long as the United States remains committed to the concept of unrestrained projection of power everywhere in the world. It is amazing that no mainstream commentator stated the obvious: people who wish America ill are not merely "jealous of its power and wealth," they are deeply resentful of what they perceive as Washington's bullying, arrogance, criminality even. "Benevolent global hegemony" will entangle America in more wars and more lies, and result in more innocent victims at home and abroad. It is unconnected to this country's interests, at odds with its tradition, and contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of its people. The paramount lesson of this American tragedy is that the threat to America exists because of the policy of global hegemony pursued from Washington. Designating "threats to national security" must follow the clear determination of a country's national interests. If those interests are assumed to include the ability to project power everywhere and all the time, then indeed the threat is also unlimited and permanent.

Srdja Trifkovic is foreign affairs editor of Chronicles Magazine and Executive Director of the Lord Byron Foundation for Balkan Studies. He received his BA in 1977, at the University of Sussex; his BA (1987), from the University of Zagreb, and PhD (1990), from the University of Southampton. He was a broadcaster, producer, and news sub-editor at BBC External Services, London, 1980-86, and then went to work for the Voice of America, and was also South-East Europe correspondent for the US News & World Report. He was a Visiting Scholar at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution & Peace, in Stanford, California, 1991-2.

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