July 20th, 2007

Terrorism and American geographic exceptionalism

One aspect of the traditional idea of American Exceptionalism included the notion that its geography kept the US safe from foreign invasion. This was historically true for the most part.

Pearl Harbor was the singular exception, as far as I know, and it constituted an attack rather than an invasion. Although shocking to the American public, it occurred very far away, in a territory rather than a state, involved military targets, and was perpetrated by a nation at war (not with us—not yet—but at war nevertheless).

Even in World War II the logistics were such that it was not practical to invade or even to attack the US mainland, although there were some attempts at small-scale sabotage.

The post-WWII spread of nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union ushered in something quite new: a Cold War between ideological enemies armed with weapons that could destroy either nation. My generation therefore was the first one brought up with the idea that American geographic exceptionalism had effectively ended.

However, mutual assured destruction—or perhaps the relative sanity of the two nation-players—meant that despite the long duration of the Cold War and the bitterness with which it was fought in non-nuclear proxy wars such as Vietnam, the US remained uninvaded and unattacked, which may have allowed us to consider ourselves relatively invulnerable. And the fall of the Soviet Union only compounded this feeling.

That was true until 9/11, an event that had various unique characteristics. Not only was it the only attack on the mainland, it involved civilian targets, and was perpetrated by an extra-national group that had declared war on the US but had previously been seen as ineffectual, and by actors who had been living among us.

On 9/11 that group was spectacularly successful. But because of its shadowy and terrorist nature it was poorly understood by most people in this country, who had to try to play catch-up to learn what al Qaeda stood for and why it had seen fit to attack us in such a manner. This hasn’t been easy, since al Qaeda’s reasoning is both murky and seems quite different from traditional Western, state-motivated, casus belli.

That difficulty allows the various groups in the West to fill in the blanks in accord with our various positions, agendas, and philosophies. Are the terrorists rational actors, or rageful zealots? Can they be stopped by reason and/or concessions, or can they only be killed? Is this true, as well, of the states they are allied with, such as Iran? If killed, will that fact motivate more people to join this particular cult in love with death, or will it discourage the recruitment of jihadis?

There’s also a divide between those who see that in this technological age such groups do threaten us in a major way, and must be stopped, and those who consider them to be largely incompetent and easily contained.

The former group realizes that, to terrorists, American geographic exceptionalism is no more. The modern global economy and its enhanced communications and flow of material, the extraordinary number of foreigners already residing in this country with more entering all the time (both legally and illegally), and the relative ease of obtaining weapons with a destructive power that heretofore was limited to states, have ended that. 9/11 had the extra added feature of allowing us to see that extraordinary strategic creativity (for want of a better word) could allow terrorists to use ordinary devices such as airplanes as weapons of great destructive power.

As far as “invasion” goes—traditional invasion is no longer necessary to attack the US. Another way of looking at it is that an invasion has already occurred—albeit of mostly peace-loving immigrants and visitors who are intent on minding their own business. But among those millions terrorists can hide, as they did prior to 9/11, and can hatch plans to wreak various forms of destruction.

This was known as a possibility before 9/11, but was not really credited. Now instead of a hypothetical, it is a fact. One of the other myths that was exploded—along with 3,000 people—on 9/11 was that foreigners who actually have lived in this country for any length of time would come to appreciate it, or at least to like Americans well enough to lose the intense hatred that would make them capable of committing the mass murder of innocent civilians. We Americans consider ourselves to be a genial society. The persistence of the rage of the 9/11 perpetrators in the face of somewhat lengthy stays here for many of them was a shock of major proportions.

It’s been almost six years since 9/11, and those years have featured no significant organized terrorist attacks on our shores, despite our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, actions which certainly could be considered provocative. People of different political persuasions interpret this fact in ways that stem from their own pre-existing notion of things, because the truth is that we don’t know exactly why this has been true.

Many on the Right consider the lack of post-9/11 terrorist attacks here to be a combination of two things: anti-terrorist efforts by this administration nipping such plans in the bud, as well as the knowledge of the terrorists themselves that it would be in their interests not to provoke the American public into more forcible retaliation and awareness. If the American public is somewhat of a sleeping giant right now, then let sleeping giants lie.

Many on the Left consider the lack of successful post-9/11 attacks here as evidence that the terrorists are weak and incompetent (inherently so; not from anything the Bush administration has done, of course!) and that 9/11 was a rare exception, never again to be repeated. For this reason, all announcements of the thwarting of new plots must be trivialized and/or considered to be propagandist inventions of the nefarious Bushies. But in addition, I wonder whether the attitude of the Left is somehow a remnant of the long-held idea of geographic exceptionalism; certainly the Left considers America exceptional, although ordinarily in a negative way.

And so, divided we stand. Or sleep. Whether an awakening will occur, and whether it will be a rude one, is everybody’s guess.

17 Responses to “Terrorism and American geographic exceptionalism”

  1. Mark Sherman Says:

    oregon.comNeoneocon said, “Even in World War II the logistics were such that it was not practical to invade or even to attack the US mainland, although there were some attempts at small-scale sabotage.”

    But the truth is the Japanese did attack the Mainland US air dropping bombs on occasion, see – http://www.oregon.com/history/hm/japanese_attack.cfm balloon dropping bombs on occasion, see – http://members.aol.com/Gibson0817/bombs.htm And, even shelling fuel and military installations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attacks_on_North_America_during_World_War_II

    All of these attacks were spectacular failures unless taking out the Fort Stevens baseball backstop was the goal of the attack.

    The attack and invasion of Alaska while not of much importance militarily, was significant in that the Japanese force did invade and hold territory in this engagement. See the Wiki above.

    Mark

  2. stumbley Says:

    “anti-terrorist efforts by this administration nipping such plans in the bud”

    Neo, more so than anyone involved could disclose, believe me.

  3. mizpants Says:

    Stumbley:
    Sounds like you have some kind of inside knowledge. Do you? (I ask this respectfully, not in a challenging spirit).

  4. stumbley Says:

    Enough to know that I can’t say more.

  5. Trimegistus Says:

    See, Neo, I still think the Left in this country is actually disappointed that there haven’t been any more attacks. If you believe that America is wicked, and if you believe that non-white people and non-Christians are inherently virtuous, then presumably the sight of swarthy Muslims taking thousands of American lives must have been extremely heart-warming to many American liberals.

    Which explains why they’re determined to halt or gut any anti-terrorist policy which shows any chance of being effective. It’s not about civil liberties — liberals are always willing to suspend other people’s civil liberties when it suits them. It’s about enabling terrorism.

    This is the simple, horrible, almost unbelievable truth: there are, right now, several million Americans who sincerely wish to see their fellow countrymen killed by terrorists. And some of them are in Congress.

  6. gcotharn Says:

    According to the Left – both here and worldwide:

    Nothing can be done.

    Just ssh up and LEARN to be a victim.

    At least, as a victim, you will have clean, pristine hands. You will have moral status.

    What? You REFUSE to learn to be a victim?! The gall! The stubborn, hard-headed, close mindedness! You need to travel more, in other parts of the world. Then you would learn. Your jingoistic ignorance is embarrassing for you…

  7. Thomas Says:

    Trimegistus Says:

    [quote]July 20th, 2007 at 5:10 pm
    See, Neo, I still think the Left in this country is actually disappointed that there haven’t been any more attacks.[/quote]

    That and/or the old narrative was the administration was too dumb to stop terrorism (ergo, they seemed to want another hit to show the administration wasn’t stopping terror as it fit with their current storyline…). You know, back when they were talking about running a ‘smarter war’ and Katrina fiasco were the party line. Most of that stuff is down the memory hole. Smarter war? Naaa, peace man. Get out now. And now it’s not just the administration that is incompetent, now the terrorists are too. Anyway, this was the middle position of the dems in between voting for the war to where they are now…

    I partially agree the terrorists are bumblers. The left line is not 100% wrong… but it is opportunistic… and pushed to logical extremes….

  8. stumbley Says:

    The terrorists are actually relatively incompetent, thank G*d. However, they only need to be competent occasionally to be murderously effective, whereas the President, the intelligence community and the Armed Forces must be infallible 24/7, and people like Kathleen Blanco and Ray Nagin can be utter idiots forever.

  9. Terroists and their plans; human traitors included « Sake White Says:

    [...] ymarsakar @ 9:57 pm  Just a response to Neo’s post here. Had problems posting it at her place. One aspect of the traditional idea of American Exceptionalism included the notion that its [...]

  10. OverGourd Says:

    There are several obstacles mitigating against the average citizen being fully informed about either Iraq or the WOT. Both are taking place at two main levels; operations by conventional troops and allied formations (including worldwide police/security) and operations by Special Warfare organizations, all supported by intell units.

    The linkage between the two levels is bi-directional with the weaponized databases in the middle vacuuming up data of all types at ferocious rates with action items being pushed as far down as possible to avoid the “long way up and long way down”/stale data problem. (nb: traditional intell gatekeepers are not all that happy with this, leading to much MSM leakage.)

    The tempo at which this OODA and PCDA is carried out is very fast, highly classified and largely invisible, especially in terms of “Big Picture” briefings. Open source metrics are badly lagging indicators.

    This leads to a vacuum which is conducive to ideological template pushing of the sort often seen here.

    An interesting unforseen consequence is that the Left/Dem/MSM coalition has had to increase its’ operational tempo since good news in Iraq/WOT is bad news for their political objectives. This coalition is not used to, or organized for, this type of political warfare and this has led to piles of mistakes,knotted knickers and “inoperative” press releases that are making a rather large lump under the carpet.

    My favorite toast: “Confusion to the our enemies. All of them.”

  11. EssEm Says:

    Pearl Harbor was not the only time. War of 1812. Brits burned the White House.

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    I left out the War of 1812 because that attack was in the middle of an already declared war that was begun by the US.

  13. Driver Says:

    Not that this detracts from your overall point in the post, Neo, but the fact that the British were able to invade the nation’s capital in 1814 and destroy the president’s house is manifestly–along with Pearl Harbor–an exception to the tradition of American geographic exceptionalism. A major power had the ability to hit us deep in the heart, at will. They got us.

    The War of 1812 is a useful study, however…as in the case of the GWoT, it was global in theater, very multi-faceted, involved bizarre alliances and international politics, was supported by some at home, and vociferously opposed by others. In fact, in contraposition to our current situation, the president (Madison) was forced into war by a bellicose congress. Again, not arguing with you or anything, but it does make for an interesting comparative study.

  14. Ymarsakar Says:

    A major power had the ability to hit us deep in the heart, at will. They got us.

    It was a minor raid by Cockburn, of little logistical benefit, a simple terror/propaganda op. In point of fact, if DC had a competent marshall in charge of defenses, they could have held out via guerrila and dug in defenses inside the capital. This would have forced the British raiders to retreat back to their ships, or else be surrounded and annihilated by superior American reinforcements. Even Johnny can tear apart British regulars once those British regulars are cut off from retreat, deep inside enemy territory.

    There was actually some officers and Naval artillerymen/Marines that filtered back after being routed, reorganized in the city, and setup some defenses that bloodied the British forces. For whatever reason, the Congressional building never burnded down, so even though they got the mansion, it just more or less pissed us off. The Congressional building was made out of stone, so that was kind of hard to burn down really.

    Back in those days, being defeated by British regulars using American militia (meaning drafted folks) was often a common expectation. Only a few American commanders ever defeated the British forces in the open field with a mix of militia and American Continental regulars.

    Even in World War II the logistics were such that it was not practical to invade or even to attack the US mainland, although there were some attempts at small-scale sabotage.

    Therefore the British Raid wasn’t an invasion, by those terms, so much as a… raid. Even though they had their bases in Canada to work off of, they more or less kept to their side of the border.

    How many people have heard Canadians brag about how it was them that burned down the American Presidential Mansion when the Canadians only got their independence last century?

  15. Ozyripus Says:

    neoneocon said:

    “It’s been almost six years since 9/11, and those years have featured no significant organized terrorist attacks on our shores, despite our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, actions which certainly could be considered provocative. People of different political persuasions interpret this fact in ways that stem from their own pre-existing notion of things, because the truth is that we don’t know exactly why this has been true.”

    If one would play the old Watergate game of “follow the money,” it might lead to those who could effectively tell al-Qaida to cool it with attacks on the U.S. mainland. Such power brokers might also have an interest in the U.S. staying in Iraq and thus effectively blocking Iran’s future power. Who might that be?

    Might we be so busy “mirror imaging” (sensu Richard Pipes in “Vixi”) our enemy culture that we miss the main interests of the various Arab-Muslim factions, assuming they think just like we do, have the same interests and motivations?

    In an essay on the Arabs, Paul Bowles said their outstanding characteristic was that an Arab “didn’t trust anyone, not even his mother.” Might some of our strategic problems lie in not appreciating the results of such a cultural attitude?

  16. Howard Says:

    “…the Left considers America exceptional, although ordinarily in a negative way”

    Yes, divided we stand.

    You have added to that division by characterizing “those on the Left” as detractors and defamers.

    Sorry, I am offended and strongly disagree. That would be like me saying the the Right is “as a rule, jingoistic.”

    (Note that I added a qualifier, as you did, for balance).

  17. Ymarsakar Says:

    You have added to that division by characterizing “those on the Left” as detractors and defamers.

    That might not be true had the Left not expelled all the non-detractors and defamers. But they did.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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