May 04, 2008

Time to start holding our breath...

It's May now, and January, 2009, seems to be coming slowly into view around that far bend. It's a nervous time. I can think of historical antecedents -- concentration camp prisoners in Eastern Europe in March, 1945, waiting for the arrival of the Allies. Will they get here before the SS turn their guns on us? Dare we hope?

I think we've been very lucky since January, 2001, that an authentic crisis never faced the United States during W's shaky tenure as head of state. I'm aware of what happened on September 11, 2001, of course; it's not as if the President would ever let anyone forget. I'm thinking of a truly dangerous situation, one involving nuclear weapons, the kind of Cold War scenario depicted in "Dr. Strangelove." My mind recoils from picturing George W. Bush presiding over such a crisis. There is no doubt that he fell completely apart in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; he froze up, panicked, fled the scene aboard Air Force One. He didn't know what to do.

He didn't know what to do before it happened, either. Americans should be proud of the job their intelligence agencies did before the jets were hijacked and crashed into buildings. The CIA was on to al-Qaeda; its plot was part of the CIA's daily briefing to the new president in August, 2001, when Bush had already been on the job for about seven months. The FBI was piecing together the basic plot lines by observing what was going on with young Arabs taking strangely abbreviated courses in piloting jumbo jets in midflight. A smart, diligent, coherent president would have used that month's lead time to coordinate his intelligence services. Reading a headline like "Al-Qaeda Determined to Strike Within U.S.," Bush would have wanted to know every last piece of evidence and data supporting this conclusion; that is, he would have followed it up if he had been serious about his job.

Bush choked; it's that simple. Both before and after 9/11. I was thinking about that while leafing through Herman Kahn's "On Thermonuclear War" recently. One of the pleasures of living near a University of California library, and paying that yearly alumni fee, is that I can delve into the enormous repository of information in those endless stacks of books. Kahn, of course, was the prototype for Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," brought to life in Peter Sellers's masterful portrayal of the crazy genius of the apocalypse. Kahn, in reality, wasn't crazy or bloodthirsty; he was simply thinking about things other people didn't want to think about: what happens after a thermonuclear war? Is that it? Will the living envy the dead? Kahn did in fact (as George C. Scott, in a another unforgettable performance as General Buck Turgidson, recreates) present a chart showing "regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable, post-war environments, one in which you've got 20 million people killed and another in which you've got 150 million people killed." Kahn was mordantly witty about some of the heat he took; in a later preface to the original 1960 book, he wrote that his critics almost made it sound as if a nuclear war was something Kahn found "desirable." Reportedly, he asked Stanley Kubrick for royalties from the wildly successful movie ("that's not the way it works, Herman," is what Kubrick allegedly answered). In his chart, actually called "Tragic But Distinguishable Postwar States," Kahn estimated that full economic recovery from a thermonuclear attack in which 2 million Americans were killed would take about one year. Compare this to 9/11, in which about 3,000 Americans were killed without any radioactive fallout, and the mediocre American economy wobbled back to its pre-attack state in relatively short order. Very, very sad, if you were one of those killed, or if you loved one of those who died. The attack has no other significance. The World Trade Center was attacked in 1993, and with nothing special done for the next eight years, it didn't happen again until Bush decided to ignore the threat, which is what he accused Clinton of doing with respect to the 1993 attack and the bombing of the Cole. Then the same building was attacked again, and Bush, with way, way too much enthusiasm, proclaimed that America had found "its mission and its moment." Well, he did, anway. He would ride that hobby horse all the way to Kabul and Baghdad, without making the slightest dent in the "existential" threat of terrorism. The great irony is that terrorism, by its very nature, is so random and unpredictable that a free society will never eradicate it; but Bush was presented with an incipient plot which was so gaudy and elaborate that it could have been predicted and stopped. He was just absolutely the wrong guy to do it.

Herman Kahn wrote about a very serious problem, the most serious problem humans have yet devised for themselves. Then the Cold War ended and for awhile, at least, we have breathed a little more easily, thinking that at least the two behemoths of nuclear holocaust, the U.S. and Russia, are not going to do anything suicidal. Terrorism, meanwhile, will continue as the byproduct of economic disparity, religious intolerance and the general cussedness in the human heart. George W. Bush can play in his Arab sand boxes all he wants and it won't change that. He's been doing it for nearly two terms in office. Spending vast amounts of money, getting more Americans killed to pile on top of the dead from 9/11, of course, but not engaged in any sort of serious endeavor. The war on terror is a hoax. Something like 8 months to go, and then perhaps an adult can take charge. We've really been pressing our luck.

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