In the 1980s, a Korean Air Lines jetliner, taking the polar route to Tokyo, blundered into restricted Soviet airspace and was shot down by a couple of MiGs. A number of Americans were on board, including Georgia Congressman Larry “Bubba” McDonald - there were some who speculated that the attack was meant solely to get him - and in those Reagan days the anger and the rhetoric flew wildly, like confetti in a windstorm. The next day there was a report of an attack on Russian sailors aboard their freighter docked in San Francisco harbor. Dockhands apparently tried to drop cargo on them from cranes in retaliation for the downing of KAL 007, presumably because every man, woman, and child in the Soviet Union must have been in on it, even those chugging through the Pacific Ocean at the time.
It’s hard to get into the minds of frightened, angry people. So much is going on inside their skulls - nests of snakes, fireworks, subzero cold, the breath of the stalking tiger on the backs of their necks. We can say, as I did at the time, that the dockhands were frigging idiots, just as we can say that about people who rioted in Atlanta and Madison, Wisconsin after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles, or who targeted Moslems in the US after Oklahoma City and are no doubt doing the same right now. But it’s much too insidious a phenomenon to pawn off on mere mass hysteria.
What I’m getting at is that right now we are all frightened, angry people, because we don’t understand the minds of the forces arrayed against us. On CNN I heard author Tom Clancy, who should know better, state that it’s tough to pull off attacks like the ones on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon because it’s difficult to find people willing to voluntarily lose their lives for this sort of thing. That’s the kind of Western thinking that continually fails us whenever we do battle with the East, whether faced with Japanese kamikaze pilots, Viet Cong guerillas, or radical Islamic fundamentalists. Indeed, that has been the primary obstacle and source of frustration to American presidents attempting to broker peace in the Middle East for the last twenty-five years. So how do 21st Century Americans sell peace to people who believe that dying in battle is the express pipeline to the divine? Truth is, it’s not hard at all to find people willing to die in a Holy War - that queue stretches for miles.
But because we Americans are a people with the notion of manifest destiny in our cells, our knee-jerk reaction is, too often, to kill whatever we don’t understand, whatever the cost. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, a poll revealed that some 57% of Americans were willing to forego some of their First Amendment rights if asked to do so in the name of fighting terrorism. Among the endless analyses of the attacks on September 11 was a choice observation from former head of NATO and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, to the effect that the reason we did not anticipate the attack is because the American intelligence community receives far too much Congressional oversight and scrutiny, that they should be left alone and given a blank check by the government. In the days following the recent attacks, legislation has already been proposed in Congress that would broaden the powers of the CIA, allow the FBI greater access to monitor the Internet and intercept e-mail, and overturn America’s long-standing policy forbidding the assassination of foreign heads of state. This is what happens to us in the wake of such tragedies - we volunteer to give up our freedoms and endorse unfettered “spookocracy” and the secret police if they promise to remove the incomprehensible enemy and restore American greatness, whatever that may be, or we start making plans to off the bastards ourselves, however distant the targets of our vengeance are from the actual perpetrators of the crime.
In other words, our first reactions to terror are both flight and fight, panic and hatred, confusion and the quick solution exactly what the terrorists intended. They understand us all too well.
In the coming days and months, the horrific photos and footage of the mass destruction in Manhattan and D.C. are going to become a point around which many people will rally and try to sell us ideas about giving up free speech and free statement. The Constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning will undoubtedly rise again. Efforts to promote censorship will be redoubled. Vigilantism and police brutality may proliferate. All of these things may happen because we will be so frightened and haunted that we will not watch for them, or because we will find excuses for them, or because we will be persuaded that the world was forever changed on September 11, 2001 and that the only way we can live in the new one is by capitulation and compromise with the worst of our nature. We cannot let that happen. In the minds of whoever is responsible for these reprehensible attacks on the United States, the hijacked planes were but the means to an end - their ultimate work will be done by us the moment we sacrifice any of our liberties in the name of security.