Crossing the Line, Apocalypse Bound
Despite the limitless look of the destruction on September 11, 2001, the dangers al-Qaeda posed were of a limited nature. After all, it took the group a long time to meticulously plan each of its attacks, whether on the WTC, or the USS Cole in a harbor in Yemen, or two U.S. embassies in Africa. Years could pass between major attacks. When Osama bin Laden, according to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's CIA testimony, pushed for launching the attack on the World Trade Center in May 2001, seven months after the waterborne assault on the USS Cole, Mohammed ignored him because they simply weren't ready.
Their attacks could be devastating locally, killing startling numbers, but that would be the end of matters for months or even years to come. Other than a finely tuned sense of the power of timing, theatrics, and publicity (which indicated just how "modern" a group calling for the return of a medieval Caliphate really was), the only thing al-Qaeda could brandish was an implicit futuristic threat: That someday they, or another group like them, might get their hands on an actual apocalyptic weapon, leaking out of the arsenals or labs of one of the two former Cold War superpowers or from those of proliferating lesser powers. Then they might create an actual Ground Zero, subjecting some city somewhere, possibly here, to a genuinely apocalyptic moment.
Certain analysts had long feared just this. One was Robert Jay Lifton who, back in 1999, wrote a far-seeing if little noticed book, Destroying the World to Save It, about the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan. It too had been led by a fanatically driven leader possessing a vision of the end of the world that probably was, Lifton says, "as old as death itself." But whereas past religious groups had waited in expectation or terror for the predicted end of time to arrive, Aum's guru set out to make it happen, to trigger Armageddon. He actually managed to finance and set up his own science labs, attract scientific types to his cult, and create a poor man's weapon of mass destruction, the deadly nerve gas Sarin.
In 1995, his followers let imperfectly produced Sarin loose in the Tokyo subway system during a morning rush hour. Due to Aum's amateurishness, few people were killed; but, as Lifton wrote, the cult had nonetheless crossed a "line" that few even knew existed. It became "the first group in history to combine ultimate fanaticism with ultimate weapons in a project to destroy the world." Its acts were also a reminder that, sooner or later, weapons of mass destruction of one sort or another might indeed fall out of the control of states and into the hands of groups, cults, or even individuals who might feel none of the restraints states turn out to be under when it comes to their use.
This was an insight that lay just below the surface of our world until September 11, 2001, but that everyone evidently sensed -- otherwise that Ground Zero label would never have come so naturally to mind. Thought about with a cold eye, the single most important set of acts the Bush administration could have undertaken -- other than bringing to justice those who had launched the murderous assaults -- would have been to nail down the globe's nuclear as well as chemical and biological arsenals, and the Cold War labs that had produced them. It's worth recalling that the largely forgotten anthrax killer or killers, who closed down Congress and killed postal workers that same September, used weaponized anthrax, evidently from the American weapons labs. In addition, genuine national security would have meant putting full-scale efforts into reversing the global proliferation of nuclear weapons -- rather than just focusing ineptly on a couple of rogue states you were eager to whack anyway. You would certainly not have broken open the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, encouraged a state like India in its militarized nuclear dreams, or launched a major expansion and "modernization" of the already staggering American nuclear arsenal.
But of course nothing like this happened. In that terrible moment when a choice might have been made between the vision of apocalypse and the reality of al-Qaeda, between a malign version of the smoke-and-mirrors Wizard of Oz and the pathetic little man behind the curtain, the Bush administration opted for the vision in a major way. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and other top officials chose to pump up al-Qaeda into a global enemy worthy of a new Cold War, a generational struggle that might comfortably be filled with smaller, regime-change-oriented, "preventive" hot wars against hopelessly outgunned enemies who -- unlike in those Cold War days -- would have no other superpower to call on for aid.