Some Thoughts on the Bombings of Sept. 11

Jeffrey D. Ullman --- 10/30/01; later additions

Like everyone, I've been quite affected by the attacks apparently perpetrated by fundamentalists on 9/11/01. I'd like to set down a few thoughts, none of which are remarkable or original, but I'll feel better putting them in print. Feel free to email me with your own point of view on the various subjects covered below. However, be warned that I reserve the right to make your email available on the Web, link to it, and comment upon it.

1. Fundamentalism

Just prior to the millenium, I was polled by a magazine about a number of questions I really couldn't answer, like what will the world be like in 1000 years? The one question to which I felt I could respond was "What is the greatest danger in the world today?" My answer: Fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism is a belief that the world is not complex, but really simple if you follow the simplistic ideas of the group at hand. Many religions foster a fundamentalist offshoot; it's not an Islamic thing. In fact, it's not always a religious thing, and we see fundamentalism in various guises. It is always characterized, as the name implies, by a set of assumptions that are not open to debate and that trump all other concerns. The most insidious of these assumptions is that there is a supreme being who believes and wishes exactly what the fundamentalist group in question believes. You can't argue with them, you can't reason with them, and if you disagree with them, they have a "big brother" who will beat you up.

Right now, the Islamic fundamentalists have center stage. But we should never forget that there are other fundamentalist groups out there, such as the Christian fundamentalists in the US or the ultra-orthodox Jewish fundamentalists. And while they differ on their fundamental, nonnegotiable views of the world, they each claim a right to impose their simplistic view on the general population, without the normal constraints, such as respect for life, that apply to people without an imagined mandate from some god. Notice that the anti-abortion fundamentalists share with the perpetrators of the bombings of Sept. 11 a willingness to kill and to bomb, e.g., abortion clinics. Yes, I know that it is only a small minority of the adherents who kill. But in each case the fundamental assumptions, and the assumed undeniability of those assumptions, are used to justify murder.

In fact, the second most disgusting story of the week of Sept. 11 was Jerry Falwell announcing that the bombings were really a punishment from his god for our tolerance of people or positions he disagrees with, such as feminism or homosexuality. Nice going, Jerry. Thanks for reminding us that the healthy feeling of unity and solidarity among all kinds of Americans doesn't apply to people who don't meet your Procrustean standard of permissible behavior.

Even those fundamentalists who do not consider murder an appropriate method of carrying out their god's wishes commit a crime of a more subtle nature. They limit the options their children have to create their own lives and to choose their own futures. (Thanks to my wife Holly for pointing out what should have been obvious to me.) The Taliban makes sure that women receive no useful education; so do the Jewish ultra-orthodox. Christian fundamentalists are big on "home-schooling," to make sure their children are not exposed to ideas with which they disagree. To be honest, I am uncertain how one goes about assuring that children have opportunities. There are great dangers in having a state decide the set of ideas to which children need to be exposed. However, I also believe that the only long-term solution to the scourge of fundamentalism is broad educational opportunities and exposure of all children everywhere to the mix of possible ways to view a complex world.

Added 8/2/04: It's been almost 3 years, and our President has evidently not yet seen the contradiction of fighting Islamic fundamentalism on one hand and leaping into bed with Christian fundamentalists on the other. In addition to muddling the war on terrorism, he has continued to support the Christian-fundamentalist agenda against abortion, gay marriage, and most ludicrously against stem-cell research. His lack of thought and reasoning points up another common property of fundamentalisms: they are frequently based on an interpretation of ancient text written by someone who could not possibly understand modern issues. Moreover, this interpretation is often the work of a modern "thinker" with an ax to grind. Ask yourself realistically: what would Moses have thought of stem-cell research? Did Jesus think that cold callers could enter the kingdom of heaven? What part of a spammer's anatomy would Mohammed have advised cutting off? The answer, of course, is that none of these guys had any clue about these or other issues that have surfaced since they wrote. Unfortunately, we have in the United States today a leadership that fantacizes answers to these questions based on the writings of people who had no clue about the questions, let alone the answers.

2. Recommended Reading

A few weeks ago, we were cleaning house and a book called Big Trouble by Dave Barry surfaced. Barry's books are very funny, so I read it. As soon as I finished, I learned that it was about to be released as a movie. But it's never going to play in theaters, at least not for quite a while. However, I recommend the book highly, even if it does include episodes such as bad guys taking a nuclear weapon through an airport security check by waiting while all the guards converge on a businessman carrying a laptop.

Added 4/12/02: The movie has reemerged, although I have not seen it. I'm willing to bet that they redid it to soft-peddle Barry's satire of the foolish security guards that concentrate on people that are obviously not the problem.

3. The Palestinians

Will the Palestinians finally forsake terror as a political approach and start building both better lives for themselves and a better relationship with their Israeli neighbors? We should not forget that Israel, a country with about 1.5% of the US population, suffers due to terrorist attacks a proportional World-Trade-Center bombing every 3 months. Somehow the world largely failed to notice or care, or equated random acts against civilians with carefully targeted military action. Suddenly the world comprehends that the Israeli approach to fighting terror is not a defect of character but is the only possible response other than surrender.

Let's remember that the last attempt to build a peace fell apart when, after being given essentially everything they want short of the dismantling of the Jewish state, the Palestinian side suddenly demanded that millions of their number be allowed to live in Israel itself. A few historical facts and comparisons:

So here's what I hope could happen:

  1. Mr. Arafat gets serious about controling the criminals in his own country, and prevents them from attacking another. He rearrests the known terrorists whom he let out of jail to further his chosen brand of "warfare."

  2. He accepts the consequences of two generations of mismanagement of the refugees and of the Arab relationship with Israel, and does not expect more than other states have gotten in similar circumstances.

  3. The quarter of a billion dollars under the control of Mr. bin Laden is identified and turned over to the Palestinians, to start building a new life for these unfortunates. Build a few chip plants. Or how about a few universities that compare to the Israeli schools, to create a population that sustains a prosperous country? And how about big contributions from the Saudis and other oil kingdoms, and from all the Arab countries that allowed the Palestinians to fester in their "refugee camps," both before and after they fell under Israeli control?

4. Avoid a Two-Front War

I predict that the "war on drugs" is going to get in the way of the war on terrorism. For a simple example, the first time I traveled to Israel, I was surprised when check-in included a search of my bags. It was explained that they were not looking for drugs or import violations, and even if they found such, they would not report it or make note of it. They did, however, demand to search for the sole purposes of security.

For another example: poppies are a principal crop of Afghanistan. If we want the friendship of the typical Afghani --- and I hope our leaders realize that we can't possibly win the war without winning friends --- we can't also try to eradicate a major source of their wealth. We can deal with the problem at the consumption end if we must, but let's not get confused where our real interests lie. Aside Re Drugs. Added 4/12/02: Well the war in Afghanistan turned out better than I would have expected. The city folks, at least, seemed genuinely happy to be rid of the fundamentalist regime. But wouldn't you know it --- with all the other problems the Karzai government is facing, they have to start arresting the poppy farmers. I suspect US pressure is behind it; Hamid Karzai comes across as a pretty sensible guy. I have an idea. Leave the Afghani farmers alone, let them earn a little hard currency, and start arresting tobacco farmers in North Carolina instead. They sell a substance that is far more deadly, and they export their trouble around the world. (Thanks to Stu Reges for making me see the contradiction between how we treat the tobacco industry and the "drug" industry.)

The new issue is with the obvious need for integrating information sources of all kinds, such as credit-card and bank transactions, phone calls, enrollments in flight schools, purchases of crop-dusting equipment and a million things I can't think of that, in the hands of a skilled analyst, could pinpoint a terror plot. However, in order to justify this step as a war measure, we need to make sure it is never used to track drug dealers, or develop evidence of infidelity, embezzlement, or any other crime that is not an act of war against this or another country. Apparently the Israelis have managed to keep the two separate, and we can too, if we have the will to do so. Added 5/14/02: It's as bad as I feared. Dionne Warwick was busted at a security checkpoint for carrying marijuana in a lipstick case (note to self: find out why her "psychic-friends" network didn't warn her). And a guy carrying grass was caught and claimed (falsely) that he had a knife. So what do our defenders of public safety and morality do? They shut down the terminal for three hours and rescreened everyone. "Procedures," apparently.

Modern technology has given criminals and terrorists many new and deadly options. Just about the only defensive weapon to come out of the developments of the past 50 years is information technology: our ability to learn electronically what evils are being planned. If we use it wisely, we can keep our personal freedom, yet use information effectively against its enemies.

5. Battle of the Nephews

Added 4/12/02: I heard the following story after writing the original article. It's hard to know what to make of it, but it is sufficiently weird I think it's worth telling.

I have a nephew who went to a toney eastern college. He somehow got in with a bad crowd --- conservatives who are as foolish for trying to steal our freedom to act as the liberal "political correctness" gang is for trying to control what we are permitted to say or think. Anyway, my Nephew wrote an article for the campus conservative magazine several years ago, advocating the profiling of Arab men at airport security checks.

This article caused a great hue and cry on campus. So great was the righteous indignation that the campus administrators did the only thing a politically correct campus administration could do: they closed down the conservative magazine.

Now here's the funny part. Who was the leader of the voices raised against my Nephew's improper thought? Ans.: One of the many nephews of Osama bin Laden.

6. Definition of Terrorism

Added 4/13/02: I received a number of emails arguing that US bombing in Afghanistan, which had the unfortunate effect of sometimes accidentally hitting civilians, or what Israel does to root out terrorists in the Palestinian territories, again sometimes killing civilians among which the terrorists hide, were themselves forms of terrorism. Nope; it ain't, but the difference is remarkably subtle. Here's my theory why the killers of 9/11, or the Palestinian suicide/homicide bombers, are different.

First, while it is far from obvious, organized (i.e., nonterrorist) warfare has a peculiar benefit. While our attention gets fixed on the times when nations go to war and on all the stupid devastation that results, we don't notice the times that the "warfare process" causes a resolution of disputes without bloodshed. That is, there must be far more times when diplomats looked at what the capabilities of the other side were and decided not to go to war, but to resolve the question in the favor of the side that would have won anyway. Curiously, "lesser" species seem to have a better grasp of this idea than we do. It is quite normal for, say, two moose to resolve a dispute by batting horns, and the loser winds up with a headache, instead of dead, as they would if the combat continued to its natural conclusion.

Humans do a certain amount of this demonstrating as well. The USSR was fond of parading its missiles through Moscow, not because everyone loves a parade, but because it reminded other nations of the outcome of attack. The tragedies come when one side does not see the logical outcome of war, which is why making capabilities clear saves lives.

The great flaw of terrorism is that by its nature there can be no posturing, no demonstration of capabilities, no opportunity for two states to consider who could perform the most violent terrorist acts against the other. For example, you may have many suicide/homicide bombers already brainwashed and ready for action. But you can't parade them through Ramallah. Anybody could dress up carrying real explosives around their waist pretending to be willing to carry out an act of terrorism, but you wouldn't believe they represented a threat until the threat was carried out.

Thus, while conventional warfare gives the sides an option of reasoning out what the result of war would be, terrorism leaves the combatants with only one option: go at it until one is wiped out. Notice what happened in Israel when the Palestinians demonstrated their misunderstanding of this point. They caused the deaths of many innocent victims, and at the present time they are learning what the only outcome can be: tit-for-tat killings. I wish the Palestinian leaders had been able to think clearly about the inevitable outcome of their choice, and taken the very generous deal that Barak offered them almost two years ago. But I can only grieve for the innocents who never had the opportunity to tell Mr. Arafat not to kill in their name, and who became the victims of the inevitable reprisals caused by terrorism.

7. Report on a Year's Worth of Comments

Added 9/16/02: I received a number of emails from people who read this article during the first year. Not surprisingly, they were, as far as I can tell, all from Computer Scientists, since no one else would have found it. (Google still lists no links to this document other than from my home page.) The responses generally fell into three categories:

  1. All fundamentalists except my kind of fundamentalist are wrong, so you should change your article to exempt my group.

  2. You are a Zionist pig, and how dare you say all those nasty things about Yasser Arafat et al.

  3. How dare you criticize anti-abortionists.

The first group were typically Jewish ultra-orthodox. For example, one said of my comments that fundamentalists share a common disrespect for the lives of those who disagree with them: "you can't find any quote or action of any ultra-orthodox person ever suggesting that anybody's life should be taken in different circumstances than (sic.) the circumstances in which secular individuals would generally justify it." Well it is true that the Islamic fundamentalists are in a class by themselves in this matter, but I recall living in Jerusalem in 1984, when the ultra-orthodox were throwing rocks through the windshields of cars that drove on the sabbath. They didn't appear to concern themselves whether they caused an accident that killed the driver, or perhaps some innocent child.

In the second category, the following remark, edited only to correct grammar and spelling, stands out for its subtlety: "if any one believes in what you said, I will call him the most arrogant idiot ignorant Zionist extremist, and racist I have ever seen." The gentleman was at least polite enough to allow me the "out" of admitting that I didn't really mean anything I said in this article. This same fellow admonished me to (again, grammar and spelling edited) "Stop using your university resources to impose your political opinions because it is against the constitution to do so." Apparently this fellow was in the US for some time and was teaching a course at a university, but a few basic concepts of how a democracy works had eluded him.

My favorite of the third category was a fellow who tried to resurrect the old argument that I think was due to Pascal (who when he wasn't busy inventing programming languages, tried to prove the existence of God). It says basically, that if you follow what he perceives as God's law --- in this case, outlawing abortion --- then your downside is limited: a few women have to deal with children they don't want (his view, not mine). But if you flout God's law, then the risk is infinite. In Pascal's terms it was eternal damnation, while in the terms of my correspondent, it was the loss of millions of the souls of fetuses. The fallacy in this sort of argument is that it can apply to absolutely any idea. If God turns out to be a giant chicken, then I would impair my immortal soul to eat at KFC. Are you willing to risk it? As always, its people with these unalterable and undebatable ideas that want you to consider their theology as special and unique.

And curiously, no one was willing to put their arguments in a document that I could link to, although several wanted me to add their thoughts to my own document, which I ain't gonna do.