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The Hyperpower Hype and Where It Took Us

The Bush administration bought its own spin after 9/11 -- and blundered accordingly.

| Mon Apr. 3, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

Just last week, a jury began to deliberate on the fate of Zacarias Moussaoui, who may or may not have been the missing 20th hijacker in the September 11th attacks. At the same time, newly released recordings of 911 operators responding to calls from those about to die that day in the two towers were splashed across front pages nationwide. ("All I can tell you to do is sit tight. All right? Because I got almost every fireman in the city coming…")

Over four and a half years later, September 11, 2001 won't go away. And little wonder. It remains the defining moment in our recent lives, the moment that turned us from a country into a "homeland." With Iraq in a state of ever-devolving deconstruction, the President's and Vice President's polling figures in tatters, Karl Rove (Bush's "brain") again threatened with indictment, the Republican Party in disarray, and New Orleans as well as the Mississippi coast still largely unreconstructed ruins, perhaps it's worth revisiting just what exactly was defined in that moment.

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A DIY World of Terrorism

The brilliance of the al-Qaeda assault that day lay in its creation of a vision of destruction out of all proportion to the organization's modest strength. At best, al-Qaeda had adherents in the thousands as well as a "headquarters" and training camps located in the backlands of one of the poorest countries on the planet.

Its leaders made the bold decision to launch an attack on the political and the financial capitals of what was then regularly termed the globe's "sole hyperpower." Although this face-off might have seemed the ultimate definition of asymmetric warfare, in terms of theatrical value -- no small thing in our world of 24/7 news and entertainment -- the struggle turned out to be eerily symmetrical. By the look of it (but only the look), the Earth's lone superpower met its match that day. With box cutters, mace, two planes, and the use of Microsoft piloting software to speed their learning curve, a few determined fanatics, ready to kill and die, took aim at the two most iconic (if uninspired) buildings at the financial heart of the American system and managed to top the climax of any disaster film ever shot. What they created, in fact, was a Hollywood-style vision of the apocalypse, enough so that our media promptly dubbed the spot where those two towers crumbled in those vast clouds of dust and smoke, "Ground Zero," a term previously reserved for an atomic explosion.

This was -- let's be blunt -- an extraordinary accomplishment for a tiny band of men with one of the more extreme religious/political ideologies around; and, if the testimony under CIA interrogation of al-Qaeda's Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is to be believed -- summaries were released at the Moussaoui sentencing hearing -- what happened seems to have stunned even him. ("According to the CIA summary, he said he ‘had no idea that the damage of the first attack would be as catastrophic as it was.'")

And yet, so many years later, there have been no follow-up attacks here. This was obviously never the equivalent of breaking through military lines in war. There were no al-Qaeda troops poised to pour through that breach, ransack the rubble, and spread across New York; nor, like the Japanese at Pearl Harbor (to which the 9/11 assault was often compared), did al-Qaeda launch a simultaneous set of strikes elsewhere. Of this sort of activity the group was incapable. Such acts were far beyond its means.

By the look of it, there weren't even sleeper cells in the U.S. ready to launch devastating follow-up attacks. (Given the Bush administration's record from New Orleans to Iraq, we can take it for granted that its officials would have been incapable of stopping any such well-planned attacks.) As far as we can tell, most of the major terrorist assaults launched since then, from Bali to Baghdad, were essentially franchised operations, undertaken by groups who claimed a kinship of inspiration and ideology; and, in a number of devastating cases, including London and Madrid, by small, self-organized groups, brought to a boil by Bush's War in Iraq, who struck on their own as, in essence, al-Qaeda wannabes. What al-Qaeda has really been promoting, because it was never capable of promoting much else, is a DIY world of terrorism.

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