In his November 3 victory speech, President Bush, sounding the keynote of his second administration, pledged to “fight this war on terror with every resource of our national power.” By saying “this” rather than “the” Bush stressed the palpable, near-at-hand quality of the war whose symbols have grown to surround us in the last three years—the tilted barrels of security cameras, BioWatch pathogen-sniffers, and all the rest of the technology of security and surveillance that Matthew Brzezinski somewhat overexcitedly details in Fortress America. Voters, at least, have been impressed. Responding to the exit pollers’ question “Which ONE issue mattered most in deciding how you voted for president?” 32 percent of Bush supporters named “Terrorism” (as against 5 percent of Kerry supporters), 85 percent of Bush supporters said that the country was “safer from terrorism” in 2004 than it was in 2000, and 79 percent said that the war in Iraq “has improved the long-term security of the United States.” Bush’s successful conflation of security at home and military aggression abroad, his insistence that Iraq “is the central front of the war on terror,” was the bravura rhetorical gambit that drove much of his electoral strategy.

If you live, as I do, in an American city designated as a likely target by the Department of Homeland Security, the sheer proliferation of security apparatus in the streets assures you that there is a war on. Yet the nature and conduct of that war, and the character—and very existence—of our enemy, remain infuriatingly obscure: not because there’s any shortage of information, or apparent information, but because so much of it has turned out to be creative guesswork or empty propaganda.

To begin with, it wasn’t a war. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the attacks were spoken of, like the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, or the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, as acts of criminal atrocity for which those who were responsible could, the President said, “be brought to justice.” But within nine days the war was underway. At the joint session of Congress on September 20, Bush described it as a new brand of war, “unlike any other we have ever known,” of “covert operations, secret even in success.” In Dick Cheney’s words, it was to be fought “in the shadows: this is a mean, nasty, dangerous, dirty business. We have to operate in that arena.”

Bush and Cheney were introducing the general public to the idea of asymmetric or “fourth-generation” warfare, involving a nation-state in conflict with a “non-state actor,” whose basic outlines were nicely described by William S. Lind and four Army and Marine Corps officers in an article published in the Marine Corps Gazette.1 Lind et al. wrote:

In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between “civilian” and “military” may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants’ depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.

Major military facilities, such as airfields, fixed communications sites, and large headquarters will become rarities because of their vulnerability; the same may be true of civilian equivalents, such as seats of government, power plants, and industrial sites (including knowledge as well as manufacturing industries). Success will depend heavily on effectiveness in joint operations as lines between responsibility and mission become very blurred.

The first four sentences quoted above seem as smart a description as any I’ve read of the peculiar situation we find ourselves in at present—a world of chronic blur, full of newly slippery words that mean something different from what they meant before September 2001. Just as John Ashcroft’s scheme for Operation TIPS (short for Terrorism Information and Prevention System) raised the question of whether one should treat the neighborhood mailman as a fellow civilian or a Pfc. in military intelligence, so the texture of ordinary life and talk has taken on a disturbingly ambiguous quality, to the point where peace wears the face of war, and war dissimulates as peace. As Admiral Fitzwallace (John Amos), the fictional chairman of the Joint Chiefs on The West Wing, admitted to the White House chief of staff in an episode of the series broadcast in 2002, “I can’t tell when it’s peacetime and wartime any more.”

In Cheney’s “arena” of shadows, one needs to be as suspicious of unattended language as of any other form of baggage. The phrase “war on terror” is a case in point. To isolate it in skeptical quotation marks can be an act of mild, justifiable pedantry: terrorism is a belligerent means, not an object or an enemy, and declaring war on it is like declaring war on tanks, or bows and arrows. It can also be an act of political dissent, identifying the writer’s mistrust of the whole enterprise; and the reverse is true. A puzzling feature of Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser Evil, for instance, is its repeated refusal to flag the phrase with quotes: “The norms that govern a war on terror are not the monopoly of government…. Standards for a war on terror will be set by adversarial moral competition…. A democratic war on terror needs to subject all coercive measures to the dignity test….2 In a book otherwise dedicated to the scrupulous examination of conventional assumptions, one outsized, unexamined assumption squats at the center like the elephant in the living room and opens Ignatieff to the charge that he’s not so much a disinterested critic of the terror warriors as their in-house philosopher.


But Ignatieff may be right. When so many basic notions, like security, war, enemy, network, chatter, threat, totalitarian, are infected with new and dubious meanings, there’s a temptation to reach continually for quotation marks as if they were pairs of rubber gloves. Better to remember Lind and his colleagues: fourth-generation warfare is altering the language in ways that we must learn to live with.

The war on terror has brought back the sap of youth to the veins of old cold warriors, like Richard Pipes, the historian of Russia, leader of Team B, and staff member of the National Security Council in the Reagan years, who seized on the Beslan school massacre in September to make a vital distinction. In an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times Pipes wrote:

The attacks on New York and the Pentagon were unprovoked and had no specific objective. Rather, they were part of a general assault of Islamic extremists bent on destroying non-Islamic civilizations. As such, America’s war with Al Qaeda is non-negotiable. But the Chechens do not seek to destroy Russia—thus there is always an opportunity for compromise.3

Pipes advised Vladimir Putin to hasten to the negotiating table, parlay with the Chechen rebels, and spare Russia further attacks. It’s axiomatic to America’s war on terror, as Pipes makes plain, that our enemy—variously known as Islamofascism, Islamist extremism, global jihad—has no rational agenda beyond its desire to destroy the United States out of remorseless, theologically inspired hatred for its values.

To justify their case, Pipes and his kind treat as beneath their notice the shopping list of causes and demands presented by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and others in their February 1998 declaration of “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders,” which is every bit as specific as the complaints of the Chechen rebels. There’s no mention of American values in bin Laden’s call for the removal of US bases from Saudi Arabia (a demand that has since been quietly met) and for an end to “the Americans’ continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post,” or in his indictment of the American “endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the Peninsula.”4 To fight Richard Pipes’s war on terror, one has to take it as read that the Islamists’ seeming preoccupation with affairs in the Arab world is merely a smokescreen to cover their pathological loathing of the United States—which could be true, but it’d be nice to see it argued in the open air and not in invisible ink.

The most rousing call to arms has come from Norman Podhoretz in an enormous article in Commentary titled “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win.” Here, in passing, he nicely disposes of the question whether America’s unconditional support for Israel plays any serious part in the global jihadists’ thinking. “Hatred of Israel,” Podhoretz explains, is “a surrogate for anti-Americanism, rather than the reverse.” “If the Jewish state had never come into existence, the United States would still have stood as an embodiment of everything that most of these Arabs considered evil.”5 For Podhoretz, as for Pipes, it’s essential to get rid of the idea that Islamist extremism might spring from causes and concerns within the Middle East, and to insist that the enemy’s quarrel is not with America’s policies but with the fact of America in and of itself:

His objective is not merely to murder as many of us as possible and to conquer our land. Like the Nazis and Communists before him, he is dedicated to the destruction of everything good for which America stands.

Or, as the subterranean monster, the Underliner, announces in the closing frames of The Incredibles, “I declare war on Peace and Happiness.”


With Israel conveniently out of the picture, Podhoretz addresses his mighty theme—the nobility of the Bush Doctrine as it confronts the third great totalitarian power of modern times. The hot war against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers and the cold war against Soviet Russia were foreshadowing preludes to the war now in progress, in which George W. Bush, “a passionate democratic idealist of the Reaganite stamp,” has heroically personified “a repudiation of moral relativism and an entirely unapologetic assertion of the need for and the possibility of moral judgment in the realm of world affairs,” thereby restoring America to its pay-any-price-bear-any-burden internationalist and democratic roots.

Despite Podhoretz’s ample retrospective catalog of injuries and humiliations inflicted on the United States by various Muslim groups and individuals (including the PLO, the PFLP, the Tehran students in 1979, Hezbollah, Abu Abbas, Abu Nidal, and al-Qaeda), it’s hard to see how the many people who committed these acts share a single theology, let alone represent a unified totalitarian force comparable with Nazism or Soviet communism. When Podhoretz giddily announces that a major goal of the war on terror must be “the reform and modernization of the Islamic religion itself,” one is sharply reminded that nothing in his essay suggests any serious familiarity with the religion to which he so breezily appoints himself as the new Calvin or Luther.

In his envoi, “History’s Call,” Podhoretz quotes George F. Kennan, writing in 1947 to welcome the cold war as a challenge sent by Providence to test America’s national mettle. Adapting Kennan, Podhoretz says:

Now “our entire security as a nation”—including, to a greater extent than in 1947, our physical security—once more depends on whether we are ready and willing to accept and act upon the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history has yet again so squarely placed upon our shoulders. Are we ready? Are we willing?

The gallant tone and dramatic historical sweep of the piece are calculated to make a fellow proud, as Tom Lehrer once sang, to be a soldier, but the questions of just how and where this inspiriting war is to be fought, and against precisely whom, grow increasingly opaque as Podhoretz works his way through some 35,000 words of martial uplift. He spends so much of his time energetically putting to the sword paleoconservatives (anti-Semites to a man), and fainthearted, détente-addicted Democrats and their lackeys in the press and in Europe that one tends to lose sight altogether of the ill-assorted band of Muslims—Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians, and, of course, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda—who, presumably, constitute an even graver threat to the US than the combined forces of Michael Moore, Bill Clinton, Brent Scowcroft, Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, and The New York Times.

The name al-Qaeda means something different practically every time it’s used. Sometimes it’s a synecdoche, intended to conjure shadowy legions of all the various militant Islamist groups around the globe, which is how Podhoretz generally refers to it. Sometimes it’s held to be a transnational corporation, like Starbucks, with a spiderweb of sleeper-cell outlets spread worldwide, but controlled from a headquarters somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Sometimes it’s described as a franchise outfit, like 7-Eleven, renting out its name to any small-time independent shopkeeper who’s prepared to subscribe to the company program, and sometimes as a single store, or bank, owned and operated by Osama bin Laden.

This fogginess has been thickened by the political and journalistic habit of using speculative—often wildly speculative—conjunctions to connect particular people to the organization. Terrorist suspects, along with almost anyone temporarily detained under the provisions of the Patriot Act, are said to have alleged ties to, be associated with, or be linked to al-Qaeda. Although most of these associations have subsequently proved to be fictitious (as in the case of Brandon Mayfield, the unfortunate Portland, Oregon, lawyer who was arrested by the FBI for his supposed involvement in the Madrid train bombing), the impression is left that members of al-Qaeda are strewn as thickly over the ground, and in our very midst, as those of the AARP.

Although the interrogation of some captured key figures with proven connections to bin Laden (among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Ramzi Yousef) has produced a great deal of detailed intelligence about past plots, as the 9/11 Commission Report abundantly testifies, it doesn’t seem—so far as one can judge from what has been made public—to have revealed much about the organization and structure of al-Qaeda itself, which remains as nebulous as ever.

The prevailing view of what al-Qaeda is and does is plausibly and succinctly put by Richard A. Clarke in Against All Enemies. Working from intelligence available to him when he was counterterrorism czar for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, Clarke, connecting every dot (even such faint ones as those that might link Terry Nichols, the Oklahoma City bomber, with Ramzi Yousef and/or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed), pieces together a fearsome but limited picture of the organization that he calls “a worldwide political conspiracy masquerading as a religious sect.” Interestingly, the picture—though it has gained many more contingent details—differs very little from the one sketched in the spring of 1996, when Jamal al-Fadl, who had embezzled money from bin Laden’s entourage in Sudan and was in fear of his life, defected to the Americans. According to Clarke, al-Fadl told his interrogators that al-Qaeda was a

network…widespread and active, with a presence through affiliate groups and sleeper cells in over fifty countries. Ramzi Yousef and the blind sheikh [Omar Abdel Rahman] had been part of it. Bin Laden was not just its financier, he was its mastermind.

The most revealing moment in Against All Enemies comes near the end, when Clarke is about to shift from his National Security Council job to become presidential adviser on cyberspace security, and his deputy, Roger Cressey, accuses him of reluctance to make the move:

“You’re not gonna move now, are you? Finally, they’re paying attention to yah, so you wanna hang around and get your White Whale, huh?” Cressey had grown up near the fish piers in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He knew about obsessive fishing boat captains.

At the NSC, Clarke as he tells it was desperate to persuade successive administrations of the overwhelming importance of al-Qaeda (and, after September 11, of the perilous irrelevance of the proposed invasion of Iraq). Al-Qaeda was his professional baby, his idée fixe, and his grievance, to be nursed in defiance of such uncomprehending skeptics and know-nothings as Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice (“As I briefed Rice on al-Qaeda, her facial expression gave me the impression that she had never heard the term before”). Only Clarke understood the paramount need to focus on the pursuit of Moby-Dick. As Melville wrote:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung…. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.

The 9/11 Commission plainly recognized Clarke’s kinship with Melville’s Captain:

Clarke hoped that the August 1998 missile strikes would mark the beginning of a sustained campaign against Bin Ladin. Clarke was, as he later admitted, “obsessed” with Bin Ladin, and the embassy bombings gave him new scope for pursuing his obsession. Terrorism had moved high up among the President’s concerns, and Clarke’s position had elevated accordingly.

Yet the commission’s description of al-Qaeda closely echoes that of Clarke, whose name is footnoted countless times in the report. Though the authors acknowledge that they were dealing with a crazy Ahab, their own version of bin Laden’s organization is in very large part Ahab’s not-altogether-reliable account of the nature and significance of the white whale.

Michael Scheuer, formerly Anonymous, the author of Imperial Hubris, is another raging Ahab, but as a CIA analyst and not a White House aide, Scheuer has been able to range more widely, and with greater intellectual dispassion, than Clarke. His white whale is not al-Qaeda but the Bush administration and his own agency bosses, against whom his book is leveled like a harpoon in one long, furious, ironic tirade. His fascination with Osama bin Laden verges almost on hero worship as he extols bin Laden’s brilliance, eloquence, sanity, religious sincerity, acute tactical skills, and the essential reasonableness of his campaign of “defensive jihad.”6 Scheuer’s message, repeated many times in different forms, is best summed up near the end of Imperial Hubris:

The United States is hated across the Islamic world because of specific US government policies and actions. That hatred is concrete not abstract, martial not intellectual, and it will grow for the foreseeable future…. America is hated and attacked because Muslims believe they know precisely what the United States is doing in the Islamic world. They know partly because of bin Laden’s words, partly because of satellite television, but mostly because of the tangible reality of US policy. We are at war with an al Qaeda-led, worldwide Islamist insurgency because of and to defend those policies, and not, as President Bush has mistakenly said, “to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world.”

Scheuer warns of huge body counts on both sides that “will include as many or more civilians as combatants,” “a Sherman-like razing of infrastructure,” land mines to seal borders and passes, “displaced populations, and refugee flows.” “This sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America’s only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.”

Scheuer’s al-Qaeda is more frightening than the versions offered by ideologues like Norman Podhoretz or by dot-connecting terrorist hunters like Richard Clarke because it is an entirely rational enemy, motivated by causes just as dear as those that drive Americans. It is bent, as we are here, on defending its own liberties in its homelands; it is amply armed, and is equipped with a better understanding of the strategies of fourth-generation warfare than Americans yet possess. Worse, we have no realistic knowledge of its size, its organizational structure, or its plans. Scheuer recently came out of his always-thin anonymity to tell The New York Times: “We still don’t know how big it is. We still, today, don’t know the battle order of Al Qaeda.”7


Alternatively, one might try thinking of al-Qaeda as a figment of our inflamed imaginations, a mirage conjured by a sleeper cell of neoconservative witch doctors in Washington and given suitably terrifying substance by a credulous press. This bracingly contrarian view is argued, with vigor and wit, by Adam Curtis, a well-regarded British documentary filmmaker, in a series of three one-hour programs recently aired on the BBC under the title The Power of Nightmares, and widely discussed in the UK. Fast-moving, full of ingenious musical and cinematic puns, Curtis’s series is best watched as an epic political cartoon in the manner of Daumier or Ralph Steadman. It freely bends the facts to fit its vision, it distorts, it overcolors, it grossly—and entertainingly—simplifies, yet, as only a cartoon can, it captures an aspect of its subject that has so far escaped even the most skeptical observers of the war on terror.

Chronicling the simultaneous rise of militant Islamism and American neoconservatism, Curtis represents the two movements as each other’s doppelgängers, both powered by disgust with the moral degeneracy of the liberal West, each under the spell of a founding godfather. As Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), the Egyptian literary critic and author of the primer of modern jihad, Milestones, inspired the Islamists, so Leo Strauss (1899–1973) inspired the neoconservatives. (This view of Strauss has been convincingly deconstructed in these pages by Mark Lilla.8 ) Plato’s idea of the noble fiction, or useful lie, is here attributed exclusively to Strauss: it was the sinister Strauss, according to Curtis, who taught the neocons how to cynically manufacture myths to persuade the American people that they were on the side of goodness in the perpetual Manichaean struggle against the all-enveloping forces of evil.

Curtis’s neocons—Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, the Kristols, father and son, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Pipes, Michael Ledeen—might as well be equipped with masks, black cloaks, and vampire teeth. Assembling in the darkness of the Ford administration, the conspirators first set out to destroy Henry Kissinger, the arch-pragmatist and advocate of détente, then, with Pipes installed as leader of Team B, they vastly inflate the threat posed to the United States by Soviet Russia. They invent devastating Soviet weaponry so secret that no Western intelligence agency is yet aware of its existence; they spin into being a worldwide terror network, controlled from Moscow, in which the IRA, Black September, the Baader-Meinhof Group, the Red Brigades, and numerous others are all financed and armed by their Russian masters.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Curtis’s neocons turn to the fabrication of domestic noble fictions, and bring down Clinton. David Brock appears on camera to confess that he was employed by the neocons, working from their American Spectator safe house, as a “political terrorist.” So the stage is set for the neocons’ most ambitious concoction, the enlargement of al-Qaeda from a small group of followers of Osama bin Laden to the vast network, threatening the survival of Western civilization, as portrayed by Podhoretz, Clarke, and President Bush.

In 1996, Jamal al-Fadl, the defecting Sudanese embezzler, had told his American interrogators whatever they wanted to hear. They needed a network; he gave them a network. They needed a mastermind; he gave them bin Laden. Wanting to prosecute bin Laden under US law as it related to organized crime, the Americans required a company name for bin Laden’s organization: they called it al-Qaeda, or the base of operations. So, in Curtis’s account, al-Qaeda began life as a US-manufactured legal fiction.

With the neocon mythmakers now in senior government positions, September 11 made it easy to cast al-Qaeda in the Evil Empire role that they had previously scripted for the Soviet Union—same global network, same central control, with a stand-in Kremlin located in the Afghan countryside. Their problem, in Curtis’s view, was an almost complete lack of hard evidence. In The Power of Nightmares, Donald Rumsfeld, armed with an artist’s diagram of a magnificent underground fortress supposedly soon to be found in the mountains of Tora Bora, is shown explaining the wonders of the place to Tim Russert on Meet the Press: the warren of bedrooms and offices, the ventilation, phone, and computer systems, the secret exits, the ground-floor entrances, big enough to drive fleets of tanks in and out of. Rumsfeld says, “And there are not just one of those, there are many of those.”

But when Tora Bora is actually reached, its legendary caves turn out to be just caves; small, dark, unimproved, empty except for a few stacks of ammunition boxes.

Not long after, Bush appears, telling the nation that “we’ve thwarted terr’ists in Buffalo—and Seattle—Portland—Detroit—North Carolina—Tampa, Flo-rida…. We’re determined to stop the enemy before it can strike our people.” But every case on Bush’s coast-to-coast list of sleeper cells has either fallen to pieces in the courts or resulted in convictions on relatively trivial charges. The best evidence that the FBI could dig up consisted of such incriminating items as a tourist video of a visit to Disneyland; an e-mail from Mukhta al-Bakri, saying goodbye to his American friends because he was going to Bahrain to get married, which was held by the FBI to be a coded message announcing that al-Bakri was going to mount a suicide-bomb attack on the US Sixth Fleet; and some graceless doodles in a day-planner, made by a long-dead schizophrenic Yemeni, that were interpreted as a terrorist’s map of a US air base in Turkey.9

Curtis argues that al-Qaeda is a “phantom enemy.” Its “hidden network of terror” is an illusion assiduously fostered by politicians who, in playing on our fears of an imagined future, have cynically grasped the principle that “those with the darkest imaginations become the most powerful.” The argument is well worth putting forward (and it’s to be hoped that some brave American network will dare to screen The Power of Nightmares), but it has one crucially disabling flaw.

“There is no al-Qaeda organization,” asserts one of Curtis’s star witnesses, Jason Burke, author of Al Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, in a climactic moment of the final episode—a remark that elicited admiring gasps from the tiny American audience to whom I showed the series. That may be true as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly as far as Burke himself goes in an article in the May/June 2004 issue of Foreign Policy, where he writes:

Today, the structure that was built in Afghanistan has been destroyed, and bin Laden and his associates have scattered or been arrested or killed. There is no longer a central hub for Islamic militancy. But the al Qaeda worldview, or “al Qaedaism,” is growing stronger every day. This radical internationalist ideology—sustained by anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric—has adherents among many individuals and groups, few of whom are currently linked in any substantial way to bin Laden or those around him. They merely follow his precepts, models, and methods. They act in the style of al Qaeda, but they are only part of al Qaeda in the very loosest sense. That’s why Israeli intelligence services now prefer the term “jihadi international” instead of “al Qaeda.”

If the next major terrorist attack on the United States takes place, it will not greatly matter if the attackers turn out to have been al-Qaeda or al-Qaedaists: bin Laden survives as an inspiring folk hero. The political causes and theological justifications for jihad are as alive as ever; in such places as the shabby storefront mosque in Harburg, the Hamburg suburb where Mohamed Atta and his colleagues found their suicidal vocation, the toxic dream of wreaking vengeance on the Great Satan will surely continue to exert its hold on the minds of well-heeled and technologically capable young men outraged by US policies and actions in the Middle East, and impassioned by religious beliefs of fresh and furious vitality. (As Max Rodenbeck wrote in these pages last April,10 the fiercely puritanical, Salafist strain of Islam practiced by bin Laden and his followers and competitors is a modern, reformist movement in full bloom, though the reformation is hardly what Norman Podhoretz has in mind for the religion.) If these constitute a phantom, it’s a remarkably close and fleshly one. Throughout the recent campaign, Abu Musab-al Zarkawi’s Tawhid and Jihad Group, operating from an undiscoverable fastness somewhere in Iraq, supplied us with a string of almost inconceivably gruesome pictures of terrorism in action, as it beheaded civilian hostages, some of them Americans, on videotape.

Yet the Curtis films are persuasive in their exposure of the futility of much of the present conduct of the war on terror—the obsession with smashing imaginary networks, the pretense of fighting terrorists abroad to prevent them from attacking us at home, the notion that a pervasive idea can be decapitated if only its mastermind can be hunted down, and the dangerous relish for promiscuous surveillance. Aided by a federal grant of $5.1 million, the city of Chicago is spending $8.6 million on a system of smart video cameras, equipped with software that will raise the alarm when the cameras spot people loitering, wandering in circles, hanging around outside public buildings, or stopping their cars on the shoulders of highways. “Anyone walking in public is liable to be almost constantly watched,” reported Stephen Kinzer in The New York Times.11 The Department of Homeland Security is the co-sponsor, with the FBI and the Justice Department, of Operation Predator, intended to track down pedophiles via their use of the Inter-net—presumably because pedophiles, whose civil liberties are held in high esteem by almost nobody, are ideal guinea pigs for a more sweeping exercise in cyberspying that might net terrorists.

If Richard A. Clarke’s switch from the National Security Council to adviser on cyberspace security looked at first blush like a demotion, it probably wasn’t: our e-mails, shared files, and visits to suspect Internet sites are obviously more likely to identify us as al-Qaedaists than any tendency we may exhibit to wander in circles in front of tall buildings. When FBI director Robert Mueller announced that Operation Predator “sends a clear message that the digital environment will not offer sanctuary to those pedophiles who lurk in peer-to-peer networks. We will identify you. We will pursue you. We will bring you to justice,”12 it seems improbable, given the DHS’s involvement in the scheme, that he had pedophiles only, or mainly, in mind.


In its present form, the war on terror is a cripplingly expensive, meagerly productive effort to locate, catch, and kill bad guys around the globe. Its successes are hardly less random, or more effective in the long term, than those that might be achieved by a platoon of men armed with flyswatters entering a slaughterhouse whose refrigeration has been off for a week. The US, desperately short of Arabic speakers and translators, lacks the basic intelligence abilities needed to conduct such a threat-based, “go-to-the-source” war, as Stephen Flynn labels it in America the Vulnerable, his brisk, cool, and hearteningly constructive account of how the Bush administration has neglected the defense of our exposed flanks in its headlong, enraged pursuit of hidden enemies.

Flynn, a former Coast Guard commander and director for global issues on the NSC staff under Clinton, effectively turns the war on terror on its head, inviting us to concentrate not on covert networks of terrorists, real or imagined, but on the vital and all too permeable networks of trade and communication that connect the US with the rest of the world. “Americans need to grow up,” he writes: acts of terrorism—by al-Qaedaists and by others—are a fact of modern life, like airline disasters and car crashes, and are no more susceptible to being eradicated than crime itself. “The best we can do is to keep terrorism within manageable proportions.”

He sketches a credible scenario in which four simultaneous attacks are made on the United States, involving three truck bombs and a bomb in a shipping container, in Newark, Detroit, Long Beach, and Miami. Fatalities are restricted to a few motorists who are incinerated on Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, but because the bombs contain americium-241 and cesium-137 they spread panic out of all proportion to their actual damage. (Terror, not death, is the chief consequence of the much-talked-up but physically ineffective dirty bomb.) People flee the infected cities. America closes its borders, paralyzing world trade. Supermarket shelves are emptying. There’s talk of airlifting food to Hawaii. The social, economic, and political costs of the attacks (which in themselves cause no more harm than the average industrial accident) are beyond calculation.

America, in Flynn’s description, presents itself to terrorists as an enormous sitting duck, and its democratic system is no less at risk than its bridges, ports, agriculture, and chemical plants. The administration, addicted to secrecy, alternates between treating its citizens as children who must be shielded from knowledge of the danger they are in, and as likely suspects who must be continually surveilled. Our greatest and most alarming vulnerability is not to terrorist bombs but to “self-inflicted harm to our liberties and way of life.”

Risk management is Flynn’s technical specialty, and much of his book is devoted to practical, cost-effective measures to strengthen and make as safe as is reasonably possible the daily flow of goods and people in and out of the United States. Track the movement of containers around the world with GPS (global positioning system) transponders, and install intrusion sensors within the containers. Establish red and green lanes for cargo, as for passengers. Monitor the food supply chain with electronic tags. Such unexciting-sounding proposals (Flynn makes dozens of them) would go a long way toward making visible and open to inspection the vast circulatory system that is now largely hidden from view, and whose obscurity offers limitless possibilities to be exploited by terrorists.

Flynn argues that most of the cost of building a terrorist-deterrent system of transportation security would be willingly borne by the private sector: shipping companies would latch on to the advantages of joining the green, or fast-track, lane, and the devices they’d have to buy in order to qualify for membership would benefit them by improving inventory control as much as it would aid the national security project. Most of the necessary equipment would quickly pay for itself, and result in smoother, more rapid passage of goods than exists at present.

But Flynn’s detailed plans are only the outward and visible signs of the important idea that drives his book—the conviction that American democracy can safely withstand a terrorist attack that is sensibly anticipated and prepared for but could collapse in the panic attending attacks for which the population is physically, emotionally, and intellectually entirely unprepared. In America the Vulnerable, it is not just the movements of American commercial goods that are vulnerable; the Bush administration has failed to safeguard the democratic system, which is its most precious and fragile charge. On one hand, it jiggers with the color-coded alert system, rigs cities with spy cameras, and speaks darkly of secret intelligence that more often than not turns out to have been no real intelligence at all. On the other, it assures us that we are safe in its hands, and that, in Flynn’s words, “our marching orders as citizens are to keep shopping and traveling.” Government is most to be feared when it treats its people as babies, the way the administration does now.

Flynn is no alarmist. His writing is even-toned to a fault, his manner still that of the unflappable captain on the bridge of the Coast Guard patrol ship, but his warning is explicit: if the war on terror continues to be waged in its present form, it’s likely to put democracy itself in peril.

The secretive, top-down, us-versus-them culture that is pervasive in government security circles must give way to more inclusive processes…. Rather than working assiduously to keep the details of terrorism and our vulnerabilities out of the public domain, the federal government should adopt a new imperative that recognizes that Americans have to be far better informed about the dangers that they face…. How much security is enough? We have done enough when the American people can conclude that a future attack on US soil will be an exceptional event that does not require wholesale changes to how we go about our lives…. We must continue to remind the world that it is not military might that is the source of our strength but our belief that mankind can govern itself in such a way as to secure the blessings of liberty.

These are temperate, wise, and practical thoughts. What is potentially to be feared more, even, than the prospect of another major attack of 9/11 proportions or worse is that, in the second Bush administration now beginning, voices like Flynn’s will go unheard, while those of such intemperate terror warriors as Podhoretz and Pipes will be listened to with a respectful attention they in no way deserve.

—December 15, 2004

This Issue

January 13, 2005