The Big, Lethal Sleep: Gary Hart (above) Explains Why America Was Caught Napping on 11 September. (the Ns Essay 2)

By Hart, Gary | New Statesman (1996), December 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Big, Lethal Sleep: Gary Hart (above) Explains Why America Was Caught Napping on 11 September. (the Ns Essay 2)


Hart, Gary, New Statesman (1996)


Should the United States have foreseen the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the real possibility that major symbolic targets, such as the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, would be attacked by terrorists using commercial airliners as guided missiles? Were there warnings and, if so, why were they not taken seriously? Why were rare early signals of danger disregarded by policy-makers and press alike? Most of all, what factors contributed to America's dazed entry into the new and newly dangerous 21st century?

Historians and concerned citizens will be pondering these questions for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.

As early as 15 September 1999, almost exactly two years before the attacks, the United States Commission on National Security/21st Century warned that terrorist attacks would occuron American soil, and that Americans would lose their lives, possibly in large numbers. Virtually no one listened in an America that was at peace, powerful and prosperous.

A confluence of factors contributed to America's lassitude.

First, America lost its coalescing cause. In the late 1980s, a prominent Soviet interlocutor characterised the emerging Gorbachev era as threatening to the US for this unpredictable reason: "We are about to take away your enemy." From George Kennan's admonition in 1946 that communism must be contained, until the fall of the Soviet empire in December 1991, the central organising principle for America and much of the west was the cold war effort to contain the spread of communism. The age was characterised by the Korean and Vietnam wars, together with the overthrow of unfriendly governments, support for friendly but often undemocratic governments, assassination plots against foreign leaders and countless covert operations.

But, in a veritable heartbeat, the cold war was over. Though US military spending would remain large, and defence structures would remain basically the same as during the cold war (albeit slightly smaller in scope and scale), those asked to do "net threat assessments" would be hard-pressed to identify an enemy. Some on the right struggled hard to find, in the People's Republic of China, a foe worthy of the all-out military preparedness once warranted by the former Soviet Union. Less ideological military planners settled for a post-cold war force structure large enough for "two major theatre wars", namely Korea and the Persian Gulf. Those not persuaded by the idea of an expansionist China, or the restart of the Korean and Persian Gulf wars, focused instead on the need to resuscitate Reagan's Star Wars programme in the form of a national missile defence system against attacks from "rogue states".

* War itself, however, was being transformed from conflict between the massed armies of nation states to low-intensity urban conflict among tribes, clans and gangs.

While the superpowers locked horns, the second half of the 20th century saw traditional wars between nation states give way to wars of national liberation, principally carried out in Mrica, Asia and Latin America against declining colonial powers. America faced unconventional, guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, as did the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Mid-century guerrilla wars of national liberation against ageing colonial powers gradually migrated to terrorist clashes between ethnic and religious factions. Ethnic nationalism, religious fundamentalism and non-state actors began to emerge.

The state lost its monopoly on violence, and the distinction between warand crime quicklybegan to disappear. As the cold war wound down, the US stepped up its exportation of democracy, liberalism and capitalism to parts of the world--especially the Islamic crescent--that neither shared nor appreciated them.

Following the end of the Vietnam war, most Americans did not want to be bothered by complex, local, tribal conflicts that did not seem to threaten them. The US presence in places such as Somalia, Haiti, Kosovo and elsewhere seemed unproductive and unnecessary. …

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