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A 'sorry' spectacle

IN THE years before 9-11, I used to marvel at the contrast between the heavy security at airports around the world, and the apparent lack of any in the U.S. I concluded that the United States must have a superb intelligence system. Big Brother must be watching everything. After all, the terrorists who were committing outrages elsewhere in the world must be trying to do so in the U.S. too. Only here, they were caught and dealt with even before they could enter the country — ergo, no need for overt security. I would grimace at the secrecy with which they must be dispatched, for one saw nothing of such intrusions in the news.

On September 11, 2001, this line of reasoning was revealed to be wholly fanciful. The terrorists, it would seem, were for a long while fooled by the same notion as I was — they too must have thought that the absence of obvious security only meant it was total. Imagine their utter surprise when they discovered that the obvious was indeed the truth!

Given the much-maligned holes in American intelligence and security, was it ever impossible for any terrorist to penetrate and punish America any time during the last several decades? After asking the obvious question: why did it happen, can we also ask the less obvious but equally important question: why did it not happen earlier? After all, in all of the modern age, most of which the U.S. managed to survive without a Patriot Act, its apparent vulnerability seemed to do it little harm. Why?

There cannot be a definitive answer, but I think actor Charles Grodin came closest to one — ultimately, the greatest safeguard for America is that it is America. He had a point.

Why would anyone want to hurt a good natured, hearty, playful, inventive, brilliant, friendly, inclusive, generous and helpful people? Why would anyone wish to destroy the only nation in the world to come about as a result of ideas, and not geography, religion or race?

The other side

There is the other side as well. America's greed, its dirty wars, assassinations of foreign leaders, fostering of death squads, toppling of inconvenient regimes, and treatment of its own poor and coloured, the list can be long.

However, world opinion regarded America rather in the manner of Churchill speaking of his drunkenness — "But madam, I shall be sober tomorrow." The problems were seen as a blot on a basically idealistic system. America's own self-healing, be it via the Civil-Rights Act, Nixon's ouster over Watergate, the Church Committee strictures on CIA excesses, all were seen as examples of an institutional auto-correction mechanism and a capacity for open national introspection unseen in other countries.

With Reagan, introspection was replaced by jingoism, which entered and soon took over the national discourse. It was epitomised by Bush the Elder's statement after the U.S. shot down an Iranian civilian airliner by mistake in 1988, "I will never apologise for the United States. I don't care what the facts are." This swaggering mood, raised to an art form by his son George W., has left the world aghast at the reality of a rampant superpower with no internal checks.

From saying "We can do no wrong" to the world, it was a short step to adopting the same line with the American people. It was this attitude which led the administration to resist appointing a commission of inquiry for 9-11. Any way one looked at it, 9-11 was a catastrophic failure. If someone had written a novel suggesting that four different aircraft would be hijacked within the U.S., all within the same hour, at different airports, and flown into some of the biggest landmarks in Washington and New York, the author would have been panned universally. Did anyone resign for the failure? No one even apologised.

Until Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism chief in the Clinton and Bush II administrations, did. For the first time in a generation, someone in authority had actually said sorry to the people, stunning even hard-boiled political junkies.

The Bush administration was left seething. They realised they should have apologised first, but doing so now would sound phony. In the event, their best bet would have been to say something gracious like, "We respect Mr. Clarke's contrition, and his apology echoes the sadness we all feel."

Instead, they launched an all-out attack, from the talk shows, the White House briefing room, and even the floor of the Senate, ridiculing Clarke and belittling his apology, their paranoia made all the more shrill by Clarke's calm and measured responses.

This sideshow aside, there was something frightening about blue-ribbon commisioners and government witnesses speaking calmly about presidents ordering assassinations, even if the target was Osama bin Laden. Governments are supposed to capture and try outlaws, not engage in mafia-style rumination over hits and misses. The social cost of such brutalisation is incalculable.


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