Hitchens Takes a False Step; What Kind of Nazis Are the Al Qaeda?; Thievin’ Heroes

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Christopher Hitchens has taken his first false step in the terrorist war?or, better put, he's been proved wrong by events for the first time. Up till now Hitchens, astonishingly enough, has been as reliable a guide to the war against terrorism as we have. His characterization of the terrorists as "death squads" and the movement as "fascism with an Islamic face" is not just rhetoric. It captures something essential about the long-term goals of the war on terror.

When Hitchens began to take this line, Sam Husseini of the Institute for Public Accuracy began to whine about the root causes of the attack, asserting that Osama bin Laden "could not get volunteers to stuff envelopes if Israel had withdrawn from Jerusalem like it was supposed to?and the US stopped the sanctions and the bombing on Iraq." Aside from being outright baloney, it was an unfortunate choice of words. Hitchens replied that Husseini's metaphor?back then, it was a metaphor?was obscene. It "neatly synthesised all three facets of denial. 'Envelope-stuffing' reduces the members of al-Qa'eda to the manageable status of everyday political activists with a programme; the same image obstructs the recognition of the full impact of the attack; the diplomatic measures that supposedly could have warded off the atrocity become, by an obvious transference, the source of responsibility for it. This is something more like self-hatred than appeasement."

Goes to show how things change in the course of a terrorist war. This seemed like an eminently sensible riposte three or four weeks ago. But now that we're in a stage of the war where anthrax is being delivered through the mail, it's no longer true that the image of envelope-stuffing "obstructs the recognition of the full impact of the attack." Nowadays it looks like a malign kind of envelope-stuffing is one of the big things Al Qaeda does for a living.

Or someone does for a living. If the anthrax wave was set in motion by Al Qaeda?and, given that letters have come from venues as remote from each other as Malaysia and Trenton, it appears there's coordination from some terrorist group?then we can expect more cases soon. We know that such organizations like to attack on several fronts simultaneously, and anthrax takes time. The only cases we've heard about involve those people who've begun to cough, and those who work near them. This is an ideal environment for rumors to get started in.

Following the first rule of flying?that turbulence is nothing to worry about unless the stewardesses look worried about it?the most unsettling indicator in the whole crisis thus far has been Dick Cheney's removal to an "undisclosed location" on most days. That's because there are two types of crisis: the ones in which knowledge makes you feel safer, and the ones in which knowledge makes you feel more scared. The appearance of AIDS in the 1980s was an example of the former kind of crisis. Once Rock Hudson died, monogamous farmers' wives in rural Minnesota were panicked about catching the "bug" through the air. The Cuban missile crisis was an example of the latter kind of crisis. When I ask my parents about what they were doing on those days in 1962, I get the impression that they didn't even know the Cuban missile crisis was happening. The people who were writing their wills and sending their children out to the countryside were the people who worked in the Kennedy White House. I sure hope Cheney's hiding out doesn't mean we're in a situation like that.

German Ban

But let's return to Hitchens' general point. There's no reason to believe the Arab world is immune to a human weakness we've seen elsewhere. I mean the inability of whole societies to prevent criminal gangs from quickly terrorizing a tiny plurality of a fragmented society into sympathy with them. That's the longest part of the fascist journey. From there, it's an even shorter route to leveraging the unity and violence of this willful splinter group into control over the entirety of that society.

As I've noted before, it's a shame that Bush Sr. felt the need to describe Saddam Hussein as Hitler. And it's a shame the left has invoked Hitler to describe everything from the Gingrich revolution to obstreperousness at school board meetings. Because if the parallel hadn't been so cheapened by overuse, it would have great analytic power. Somehow the Nazis went from a few thousand barbaric, half-literate, and?above all?ridiculous criminals in the 1920s, to exercising, in the 1940s, the most efficient domination over Europe since Napoleon. There was a tipping point somewhere in the 1930s when the Nazis went from a movement that could have been stopped with a gentle push to a movement that had such irresistible momentum that it could be stopped only through an horrific expenditure of lives.

Clearly something like that happened when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. But how close are we to that tipping point in the Muslim world as a whole? There are probably only a dozen people in the country who know enough about it to say. Whether or not this war can be confined to one against terrorism, or whether it will involve taking on big, avowedly hostile Muslim states, is unclear. In other words, anyone with eyes to see knows that Al Qaeda is a bunch of Nazis, but we don't know whether they're a bunch of Nazis circa 1931 or a bunch of Nazis circa 1941. What kind of war we have to fight will depend on whether the irascible man on the street feels (a) a twinge of sympathy for the killers that is overwhelmed by a sense of horror at the carnage they've wrought, or (b) a twinge of discomfort for the victims that is overwhelmed by an anti-American fury.

These viewpoints aren't as distant as they might look. If I had had to guess, before Sept. 11 I would have said that the power of such ideas was on the wane. The Ayatollah Khomeini was dead, contacts between the Near East and the West had increased. And yet, last weekend the former oil minister of Kuwait was interviewed in an article for a London Arabic newspaper in which he attacked his own country's tepid support for America in the wake of the murder of 6000 Americans. Kuwait, of course, would not exist were it not for the United States' willingness to sacrifice hundreds of lives to protect it from Iraq. It is the very last place on Earth where one would assume that rulers would have to knuckle under to popular pro-bin Laden pressure. A bad sign.

It Burns Me Up

There has never been anything in the annals of firefighting to match the sacrifice of the FDNY before the Trade Center collapse. But it's worth noting that firefighters across the country are generally inclined toward sacrifice, and generally win wild acclaim from the populace when push comes to shove.

That happened in spades in the wake of the L.A. riots in 1992, where Daryl Gates' LAPD retreated into a snickering serves-'em-right seclusion while firemen worked to save whole city blocks. Throughout the following year, firemen became the authority of first resort in a lot of unarmed confrontations in minority neighborhoods that didn't trust the police.

I can think of only one exception to this almost universal rule: our District of Columbia fire department. The fire that resulted when an American Airlines plane hit the Pentagon was one of the largest in the history of the mid-Atlantic, drawing in firemen from several jurisdictions. Washington sent 120 firefighters across the river to the Pentagon. Crews worked there for days. And how did DC's firemen distinguish themselves in our nation's moment of need and despair? They stole shit! As they left they started carrying off equipment that belonged to the Arlington, VA, fire department?smoke-penetrating goggles, which cost $15,000 apiece, and special breathing packs that cost $3500 per.

They got caught. There was a confrontation between the District's firemen and Arlington's, with the latter offering not to press charges provided all the equipment was returned. That hasn't happened yet. There's a lot still missing. And what is most galling to the Arlingtonians are the excuses the DCFD is peddling, which are almost Talibanesque in their lameness. DCDeputy Mayor for Public Safety Margret Nedelkoff Kellems told The Washington Post that "equipment mix-ups are an issue when several jurisdictions respond to an emergency." DC Fire Chief Ronnie Few was reading off the same spin sheet. "During joint fire operations," Few said, "it is common for neighboring fire jurisdictions to mix up equipment on the scene."

Yes, but the key verb here is "mix up." You might accidentally take home equipment identical to yours?but you wouldn't take home equipment you hadn't brought. I've seen people accidentally pick up overcoats of the same size, color and material as their own. I've never heard anyone say, "Oops! Sorry I took your mink coat. I thought it was my nylon windbreaker."

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