Why No More 9/11s? (consolidated version for printout)

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 5 2009 4:35 PM

Why No More 9/11s?

An interactive inquiry about why America hasn't been attacked again

(Continued from Page 4)

All right, then. American Muslims are disinclined to commit acts of terror inside the United States. Why don't American non-Muslims pick up the slack?

Actually, they do. In April 1995 Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people and injuring 500 more. In April 1996, Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber," was arrested for killing three people and wounding 22 others. In July 1996, a former Army explosives expert named Eric Rudolph set off a bomb at the Olympics in Atlanta, killing one person and injuring 11; later, he set off bombs at two abortion clinics and a nightclub frequented by gay men and women, killing a security guard * and injuring 12 others. In September and October 2001, somebody sent anthrax spores to media outlets and government offices, killing five people. The FBI believes it was an Army scientist named Bruce Ivins who killed himself as the investigation closed in on him. These are just the incidents everybody's heard of. The point is that domestic terrorism inside the United States is fairly routine. The FBI counted 24 terror incidents inside the United States between 2002 and 2005; all but one were committed by American citizens. (The exception was an airport attack that killed two people carried out by an Egyptian limousine driver who'd been living in the United States legally for 10 years.) Except for McVeigh and Nichols, however, these homegrown haters did not commit violence on a large scale. Fourteen years later, Oklahoma City looks more like a one-time event than a trend.

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What places this theory one more bead along the worry chain is the unfortunate reality that it doesn't necessarily take very many people, Muslim or non-Muslim, to pull off a terrible attack. Only three people were prosecuted for the Oklahoma City bombing. Even 9/11 required only 19 suicide hijackers. The Melting-Pot Theory can't quiet entirely our anxiety about a hypothetical, statistically insignificant group of people who mean us harm.

[Update, March 4: Gallup and the Coexist Foundation have just released what appears to be the most extensive survey of American Muslims ever conducted. To read a summary click here. (The full report is available if you scroll to the bottom.)]

Correction, March 2, 2009: An earlier version of Part III. neglected to mention the death of the security guard, Robert Sanderson. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

IV. The Burden-Of-Success Theory

Ralph Ellison published his first novel, Invisible Man, in 1952. It won the National Book Award. The New York Times said Ellison had "mastered his art." In 1963, Ellison announced he would soon publish a second novel. The literary world held its breath. The book was delayed. Invisible Man, meanwhile, became recognized as perhaps the single greatest American novel of the postwar period. The years passed. "YOUR SILENCE PREVENTING WORK," Ellison telegrammed his future wife. In 1994 Ellison died, his second novel nowhere near completion.

Is Osama Bin Laden the Ralph Ellison of terrorism?

According to this theory, the 9/11 attacks were so stunning a success that they left al-Qaida's leadership struggling to conceive and carry out an even more fearsome and destructive plan against the United States. In his 2006 book The One Percent Doctrine, journalist Ron Suskind attributes to the U.S. intelligence community the suspicion that "Al Qaeda wouldn't want to act unless it could top the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with something even more devastating, creating an upward arc of rising and terrible expectation as to what, then, would follow." In a 2008 follow-up, The Way of the World, Suskind quotes Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi dissident believed by the U.S. Treasury to have ties to al-Qaida going back to the mid-1990s, predicting an attack "bigger than 9/11." The purpose of such escalation would be to incite a domestic uprising that would force the United States to retreat from the Muslim world and thereby "collapse the world order." The U.S. response to 9/11 in both Afghanistan and Iraq strongly suggests that precisely the opposite would happen, but never mind. "Terrorists compulsively drink deep from the well of their own propaganda," Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, wrote last year. "The movement doubtless continues to pin its hopes and faith on some new, spectacular terrorist attack that will catapult al-Qaida back into prominence."

An attack on this scale would very probably require a chemical, biological, or nuclear weapon. Al-Qaida is known to have pursued all three.