Why No More 9/11s?
An interactive inquiry about why America hasn't been attacked again
- Three days before Spain's March 2004 parliamentary elections, a local al-Qaida affiliate carried out train bombings in Madrid, creating a last-minute surge for the Socialist Party. The new government withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq.
- Three months before 2006's U.S. midterm congressional elections, British authorities shut down a planned coordinated attack by al-Qaida on jumbo jets flying to the United States. This conspiracy, which prompted the "liquids and gels" ban, was in a late stage. The GOP lost control of the House and Senate.
- At the end of 2007, Pakistani extremists believed to be working with al-Qaida assassinated Benazir Bhutto, who had recently returned from exile to seek a third term as prime minister. Her husband became president as a result.
Did al-Qaida achieve its desired results? To believe that, you'd have to believe that al-Qaida preferred more dovish government in Spain but more hawkish government in the United States (except in Congress, which it preferred to be more dovish) and that for some reason it preferred Asif Ali Zardari to his wife. That wouldn't make much sense. It's possible al-Qaida harbored incorrect notions about how these various events would play out. Al-Qaida is typically credited with preferring hawkish foes to dovish ones because that throws the "clash of civilizations" into greater relief, but who really knows? Does al-Qaida favor certain candidates or parties? Benjamin concedes there's little evidence to support that notion. "If al-Qaeda attacks occur when they are most convenient for the attackers," argues Benjamin H. Friedman, a terrorism expert at the Cato Institute,
they will be randomly distributed throughout the year, meaning that a certain [proportion], which will head toward one-twelfth as years go by, will fall in the month before elections. Citing a few attacks that occured around election time is evidence of nothing.
Another difficulty is that the big one, 9/11, occurred nearly one year after a major U.S. election. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which bore links to al-Qaida, occurred three months after a major U.S. election. Al-Qaida's 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya occurred nearly two years after a presidential election and three months before a midterm congressional election in which the biggest issue was the fallout from President Clinton's affair with a White House intern. Election-cycle theorists finesse most of this by arguing that the danger period lasts through the first year of a new presidency. That's because a chief executive still learning the ropes is likelier to blunder either in defending against an attack or responding to it. Both proved particularly true of President Bush.
Might President Obama be similarly vulnerable? His secretary of state thought so during the primary campaign. "I don't think it was by accident that Al-Qaeda decided to test [Britain's] new prime minister," candidate Hillary Clinton said in January 2008, referring to an al-Qaida-linked car bombing at Glasgow airport mere days after Gordon Brown moved into 10 Downing Street. "They watch our elections as closely as we do." During the general campaign, Vice President Biden made a similar point. "Mark my words," he said. "It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama." Biden didn't say the test would come from Osama Bin Laden, but that's certainly possible. I give this theory the penultimate bead because if Biden is right, then we have entered a period of maximum danger.
VIII. The Time-Space Theory
The RAND Corp. is headquartered in a blindingly white temple of reason a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, Calif. It was here—or rather, next door, in the boxy international-style offices it inhabited for half a century before moving four years ago into a new $100 million structure—that America's Cold War nuclear strategy of "mutual assured destruction" was dreamed up. Also, the Internet. Created by the Air Force in 1948, the nonprofit RAND would "invent a whole new language in [its] quest for rationality," Slate's Fred Kaplan wrote in his 1983 book The Wizards of Armageddon.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.