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Start of History 

The hour of the furnaces

Wednesday, Sep 12 2001
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W., about to board Air Force One for a short stay at his Nebraska bunker, reflected on what the U.S. might do in response to the horrific terror attacks on the World Trade Center: “Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”

W.’s visions of revenge are shared by many. For the president, and some of TV’s talking heads in the Joint Media Command, it’s time to change into camouflage gear. For them, history began on the morning of September 11, 2001, when a group of fiends jacked four planes, dropped from the sky and rained a new Pearl Harbor down on America because an irrational, foreign God had so commanded them.

But, in reality, history starts wherever it is convenient. For some, it begins when a Palestinian bomber turns an Israeli disco into a slaughterhouse of youth. For that same bomber, his history may have been jump-started when his family home was bulldozed by the Israeli army. Or when his cousin perished 20 years ago as U.S. battleships lobbed VW-size shells onto the Lebanese shore.

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For some to the south of us, their relevant history began on a different September 11 — that of 1973, when the Chilean Air Force, prodded by the U.S., bombarded its own downtown Presidential Palace. Or maybe it was when a fleet of B-52s razed their Cambodian village, or smothered their rice paddy with a coat of Agent Orange.

The trauma experienced by most Americans in grim moments like this week is enhanced by the thick padding of denial, isolation and self-delusion with which we swaddle our daily lives. Nonetheless, we remain vulnerable to determined, targeted probes of fire and steel.

Amid the staggering, mounting toll of casualties from the rubble of the World Trade Center emerges a stark reminder that our vulnerability is a constant. That, in fact, it owes nothing to this or that lax security measure, or to the adoption or omission of some new technology, or to the old stand-by of either “failed” or “beefed-up” intelligence.

By current accelerated measures, the technology employed in the World Trade Center attack was downright ancient, if not obsolete. Hadn’t we “solved” the plague of plane hijackings 15 years ago with metal detectors, X-ray scans, sniffing canines and inquisitive ticket clerks?

For some years, critics of Orwellian-level security measures have been arguing that all that was necessary to attack a major American city was a tugboat and a nuke-packed briefcase. Apparently, that was overstating the case. This time even a couple of American Airline frequent-flyer cards would have done the trick.

Being the unchallenged military superpower in a world ruled by force offers no exemptions from ugly and potentially apocalyptic backlashes. Perhaps cruder, lower-tech, more artisanlike retaliations than those “surgical” Cruise missile strikes that form the nucleus of the Pentagon’s current strategy guidelines. Nevertheless, retaliations.

No one, anywhere, deserves to be blown away while sitting at his or her desk, or plowing a field, or dancing in a disco, or huddling defenselessly in a Baghdad bomb shelter.

Our actions — and policy — inevitably produce what political scientists call “outcomes.” An administration that underwrites from afar one of the bloodiest of regional conflicts or that quietly countenances a policy of state-sponsored assassination cannot escape consequences—- moral or otherwise.

Over the last 50 years, the U.S. has had many opportunities to avoid winding up in the vindictive, vengeful, vicious and might-makes-right world in which we actually live, where violence is always decried and regularly deployed, often as the first reaction to any real or imagined offense. It’s axiomatic that most crimes — and certainly all political crimes — are justified by their perps as payback. After decades of nuclear swagger, enthusiastic fueling of the Cold War and serene bombardment of civilians, Americans still are surprised that other people also view conflicts through the prism of victimhood and revenge.

I don’t believe for a moment that the American political class, nor the American people for that matter, are about to use this occasion to soberly reflect on such lofty notions. We now enter what poet José Martí, under different circumstances, called “The Hour of the Furnaces.”

The crassest of patriots and jingoists, clanking their chains for war, will dominate the talk-show gas pipes. Brace for a new wave of Brokaw-ish bathos about the sacrifices that American forces made in Normandy and that they soon will be called on to perform again, though we’re not quite sure where . . . yet. Prepare for a long national ritual of mass victimhood destined almost certainly to culminate in some sort of redemptive blood feast on foreign shores.

At the minimum, W.’s budget problems are gone now. Who will now question his increases in military spending? Who will have the courage to balk at what are the now inevitable funding increases in the whole shadowy world of covert military ops? Just who will oppose the multi-billion-dollar boondoggle missile shield — a system that would have done nothing to stop this week’s horror.

From the White House spin chambers to the office water cooler, America will take up a unanimous mantra: Perhaps we are too free, we offer too many rights, we are too lax, too soft; we care too much what others think of us. Time to get real. Time to get tough.

On Tuesday morning, shortly after the terror attack, CNN featured the thick voice of Henry Kissinger, who decried the effrontery of a foreign assault on our soil. Thirty-six hours earlier, the same Doctor K. had been targeted by CBS’s 60 Minutes for his now undeniable role in the CIA assassination of the Chilean army’s commander in chief in 1970. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, as they say, dissent ends at the water’s edge. And when it comes to moments of national emergency, it seems, dissent ends just short of the war criminal’s dock.

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