Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Osama who?

You start with a strong industrialised nation, chock full of fanatics willing to die for the cause. You train a metric buttload of them as soldiers, give them top shelf weapons and send them off to the neighbours’ countries to let them know they’ll be sending their oil and minerals your way for the foreseeable future thanks very much. You use those resources to crank out some nice new airplanes, a brace of honking big aircraft carriers to park them on and a bunch of other ships with enough guns on them to sink a bunch of other ships. Then you send the whole lot out at once to give the US navy such a horrible punch in the nose that they’ll spend the next fifty years crying in a corner of the playground.

"Are we there yet?" "What?' "I SAID..."

Four years later, the carriers are all gone. Those modern planes have been outclassed several times over by a seemingly endless stream of American planes, each one festooned with more machine guns than the last. The oil has dried up, your factories are rubble, your meticulously trained soldiers have got themselves killed mounting bayonet charges against machine gun nests. And two of your cities have just vanished beneath mushroom clouds, destroyed by weapons your scientists didn’t just not know about, they didn’t even know they could know about them. You begin to think conquering the United States might not be as easy as you thought.

"Seriously, are we there yet?"

You start with the world’s mightiest military machine. With six thousand tanks, ten thousand planes, six million soldiers and the experience that only comes from four years of hard, grinding war against the previous holder of the green jacket for “world’s mightiest military machine”, you’re no longer hampered by a lack of firepower. You crack the whip on your scientists, and with the kind of motivation that only a stay in a gulag can inspire they’ve figured out the mushroom-cloud-bomb thing in record time.  You send a few guys in tanks to your neighbours’ capitals and ask if they’d like to be on your side or would you like me to fire this gun at you yes this big one on my tank here. Their enthusiastic cooperation ensures a steady flow of cannon fodder and a nice buffer zone in case anyone tries to sneak across the border and set fire to your base. Just to show the world who’s got the shiniest scientists, you shoot a spiky basketball into orbit, and make sure everyone knows about it by making it send out beep-beep noises they can pick up on their radiograms. You shoot a dog into space, just because you can, then you send a bloke up there to feed it and take it for a walk, all the while making the US look like dills because their rockets keep blowing up on the launch pad. Sure, they beat you to the moon, but they’re already so messed up that a fair slice of their population will swear blind it never happened.
"Oh boy! Space travel, my favourite!"

After a few decades you’ve got a tight little alliance, more planes, tanks and soldiers than ever, even a few aircraft carriers for the two weeks a year when your ports aren’t just ice skating rinks with jetties. You’ve got enough bombs to wipe out humanity twice, or, more usefully, Justin Bieber eight billion times. America’s busily losing a jungle war, murdering their own president, impeaching the new guy for being an unbelievable idiot, and tear-gassing their university students for protesting against anything so long as it means not going to classes. You’re swimming in oil, you’ve got nuclear power (hurray!), enough drugs to ensure a sackload of gold at every Olympics for the next fifty years, and none of that pesky democracy stuff to get in the way. Your big new power plant at Chernobyl is getting up steam, and the army’s just off to give the natives a good spanking  in Afghanistan. Things are lookin’ good; soon you’ll be able to just go over there and buy America.

Tanks vs. tribesmen? What could possibly go wrong??

A few years later, you’ve still got your aircraft carriers. Unfortunately the crew have sold all the planes for scrap to buy vodka.  Your army’s been utterly humiliated by Sylvester Stallone and his Afghan allies. Your shiny new power plant is the derelict centrepiece of a deserted radioactive wilderness patrolled by radioactive laser piggies. Your ‘allies’ have all told you where you can shove your hammer and sickle and joined the other side. Some genius in your army decided the best way to fix the whole mess was to roll some ironmongery into Red Square, but they’re now so pathetic they’re stopped by some drunk old guy who climbs up on your tanks and shouts a bit. Bits of your country are so peeved that they’ve decided to bugger off and be their own countries. You were using a few of those bits to store your nukes…

Oh. Right.

Enough with the aircraft carriers. Enough with the nukes. No more invasions, no more scientists, space rockets or beep-beep things. If we’re serious, really serious about destroying the United States, what we need is a bunch of box cutter knives and some plane tickets.

Uh uh...

That's it!
Nobody will ever know exactly what Osama bin Laden was thinking when he put the whole 9/11 attack together. I don’t think he ever thought, even in his wildest dreams, that he would bring about the downfall of the United States of More Nukes Than You Buddy. But we do know that he wanted to hurt them and, lacking aircraft carriers, he resorted to the weapon of choice of losers throughout history: terrorism.
Are we scared yet?
Terrorism’s been tried over and over for centuries. It’s failed over and over for centuries too, but that never stops the latest bright-eyed, frock-wearing, holy-book-thumping costumed zealot thinking he’ll have a crack. Each maniac thinks it’ll work because hey, my followers are way more fanatical than all those other losers, and since our religion is the One True Religion, we really DO have God on our side! A few thousand dead followers later, the whole thing is off the front pages and the guy who started it all has gone out in a blaze of suicidal glory. Or he’s been grabbed out of his comfy hideout stuffed full of Western Consumer Goods and a selection of designer wives and unceremoniously lynched by disappointed followers/triumphant opponents, or (much more likely) simply been forgotten by all but a few academics and “Whatever happened to?” pages in the better newspapers. Groups like Aum Supreme Truth, Bhagwan whatsisname, Jim Jones and his People’s Temple; all have come and gone, sometimes spectacularly, usually tragically, from the headlines. They killed, they maimed, they made us hate them, but did they change the world? Nuh uh.

Aum Supreme Truth: meditation, prayer and Sarin Gas
But not everyone who makes with the IEDs, poison gas and spiked Kool-Aid is a religious nutter. Slightly higher up the terror food chain are the geopolitical crowds like the IRA, Yasser Arafat’s PLO and Spain’s Basque separatist movement ETA (pro tip: naming your terror squad? TLAs are where it's at). All of these guys kicked off with a clear goal, specifically a chunk of real estate they could call their own. Since said real estate was already occupied by folks who liked the view, had just got the kids into school and, well, didn’t really want to go through the hassle of moving again, all three groups got busy blowing up stuff to show everyone they were a) armed, b) committed, and c) really not sure what else they could do. It’s a stretch to see how blowing up a department store is going to get you your land back, but that’s politics. It’s complex, dangerous and it can be very hard on quality consumer goods outlets.
And terrorism’s not just a Third World thing. It’s a while back now, but Europe once had a nasty rash of the home-baked variety, spawning groups like Germany’s Baader Meinhof and Italy’s Red Brigades. And since them we’ve had a grocery cart of fringe crazies like The Real IRA, America’s anti-UN Militias and a veritable panoply of Greek nutwagons like November 17, Revolutionary Struggle, Revolutionary Nuclei, Sect of Revolutionaries and the AWESOMELY named Conspiracy of Fire Nuclei (news flash: they're on Facebook!) There's a (possibly dodgy) list of Greek terror organisations with names way cooler than anything I could make up (I particularly like "Happy sleep's apostates" and "Destroyers of whatever is left of Social Peace.") Greek terrorism peaked in 2004 when one of these rabbles blew up two display cars at a Mercedes dealer, striking a fatal blow against anti-lock brakes and cruise control. Responsibility was claimed by the Committee For Promotion of Intransigence, a group clearly unaware of the rule of thumb that your name should NEVER use words worth more than  thirty points in Scrabble.
All of these guys have blown stuff up, killed public figures, staged meaningless and little-reported acts of property damage and generally made nuisances of themselves until their members reached their thirties and had to get jobs or their flatmates would kick them out. Look around the world at any point in history and you’ll probably find someone who thinks hurting people at random is the best way to bring about their Socialist slash Communist slash Islamist utopia. Or at the very least to get US soldiers to bugger off and let them get back to killing those splitters from the Judean People’s Front. But all the bombing and burning and gassing and strutting about in ski masks has done little more than turn them into caricatures, and give governments a handy excuse to lock away all manner of troublemakers in the name of 'cracking down on terror'.
So why do people keep on trying this stuff in the face of overwhelming evidence that at best it’ll fail, at worst get them murdered in the face? Well, sometimes terrorism does change things. The Madrid bombings of 2004 occurred three days before an election in which sending troops to Iraq was a hot topic. The incumbent party, who had sent troops to Iraq, had a narrow lead in the polls, until a total of ten bombs killed 191 people and wounded 1800 at Madrid train stations. The opposition won the election and brought the soldiers home, denying the Coalition the half-dozen trucks and two very nice field kitchens that Spain was contributing.
Or look at one of the best-known terrorist groups, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and its iconic leader Yasser Arafat. His henchmen were allegedly involved in blowing up planes, killing civilians at airports and murdering Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. But somehow Arafat has met the pope more times than Barack Obama and shook hands with both Clinton and the head honcho of Israel, Ehud Barak (no, EHUD Barak. Different fella). Even though terror was his weapon of choice, even though he blew up a bunch of (empty) planes, people still liked him enough to have him round for tea and economic summits.
Smile and wave boys...
But in most cases? All it does is get people very, very angry. The bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie killed 270 people, including 11 on the ground. Libyan support for the act is vaguely linked to Moamar Gaddafi's anger over loss of Libyan warships and fighters in several fairly one-sided clashes with US forces. The worldwide condemnation, retaliatory bombing raids and ongoing sanctions in response to Lockerbie left Libya in the Toilet Of Nations for years, all for no benefit.

And even the ‘success’ stories aren’t all that successful. While Arafat’s efforts made the idea of a Palestinian state a genuine option, his people are still starving. The per-capita income of the average Palestinian is around $1,200, around a tenth that of their Israeli neighbours. Despite Arafat’s remarkable efforts over several decades, it’s all gone horribly wrong for them, with his Fatah Party now openly warring with the opposition Hezbollah, another crew who decided to go with terror to get their point across. Even when it works, terrorism doesn’t work. And most times it does little more than show just how doomed your cause is. When bin Laden-inspired amateurs blew themselves up on several British trains and buses, did they make Londoners think twice about their involvement in Iraq? Given that the city endured nightly raids by hundreds of aircraft for months in 1940, a few misguided outcasts hell-bent on Paradise weren’t even going to make them put down their teacups. Terrorism is a loser’s weapon.
The Blitz, 1940. 76 nights straight, one million homes destroyed. Londoners kept calm and carried on.

The bombings, July 2005. One day, three trains and a bus. Most trains were running again by nightfall.
And the latest try-hards are no different. Bin Laden’s own ‘manifesto’ declared that he attacked America because they supported Israel, because they attacked Muslim nations, and because they sent soldiers and built bases on their land. If his aim was to stop this, the score sheet doesn’t look too good for team Al Qaeda. Back in 2001, Afghanistan was free of the Russians, was clear of US 'advisers', and had even convinced Rambo to go home and try boxing again. The Taliban had the country to themselves, and they were busy making it a better place by forcing girls out of primary school, blowing up centuries-old monuments and encouraging the locals to grow opium instead of food to fund their gun hobby. Then, just as they were really getting good and oppressive, bin Laden launched his terrorist Pearl Harbour on New York City.
Within two weeks, a few dozen CIA bods sneaked into Afghanistan with binoculars, cool night vision gear and a few of those laser-pointy things people use in boring PowerPoint presentations. Right behind the CIA chaps came an endless freight train of B52 bombers, loaded up with laser-guided goodness. Every time the CIA chaps saw someone they didn’t like the look of, they’d point a laser-thingy at it, give the B52 pilots a wave then grab some cover while the bombers thinned out the herd a little. After a few weeks, the CIA crews plus some Delta Force hardcases plus a brace of fifty-year old heavy bombers had driven Osama and the Taliban out of all the really nice caves and forced them to hide in a few damp ones near the Pakistani border. The three thousand deaths of 9/11 led directly to the deaths of over thirty thousand Taliban soldiers. And two years later, George Dubya was taking advantage of public sentiment to engage in some laser-guided diplomacy with his dad’s old sparring partner in Baghdad.
B52s. Scarier than box cutters.
As of this blog, both wars are still ongoing. US casualties number in the thousands, but deaths amongst their insurgent foes number in the tens of thousands, if not more. Were it not for 9/11, the 2003 invasion of Iraq might not have happened. The war in Afghanistan definitely  wouldn’t have happened, not when it did anyway; major powers have suffered too many humiliating defeats there to think going back would be popular with the folks back home. Regardless, if the 9/11 attacks were revenge for US involvement in the Middle East, then you have to think bin Laden was spending most of his cave time apologising to his buddies for making things a whole lot worse. And if his intent was to make things better for Palestinians? He’s hashed that one up too. Given he was a construction guy, I’m guessing that if he’d actually asked them how he could help, they would have said thanks very much for the offer to blow up America, but could we just have some cheap houses and a new soccer stadium instead please? Terrorism is a loser’s weapon. And the losers are often the people they claim to fight for.

Once all the smoke has cleared, once the whole thing’s dropped off Twitter and the Pakistani government have executed a few scapegoats, people will get some perspective on this. Terrorist leaders seem like mythic creatures when they’re in the wild; like yetis or the Loch Ness monster, they’re only scary so long as we only see blurry photos. Abimael Guzman, the leader of the brutal Maoist terror group The Shining Path was legendary in Peru, the bogeyman mothers frightened their children with. He was eight foot tall, made of iron, he breathed fire and ate soldiers two at a time, and just saying his name would make your head catch fire. He killed, maimed and destroyed for years, but when the government finally caught him, they didn’t jail him out of sight. They dressed him in striped pyjamas and stuck him in a cage in the town square. And rather than the invincible demigod they expected, Peruvians discovered he looked more like an grumpy maths teacher: short, bearded, chubby and bespectacled. He ranted shrilly at the people who came to see but, deprived of the power of anonymity, he was just a pathetic middle-aged man with a saggy belly from too many Oreos. Remarkably, the Shining Path have largely abandoned terror, and are trying a far more effective weapon to get their way: education.

"You guys are jerks."
Until April 29th 2011, bin Laden had the same power. He was known to us from the handful of video grabs that made it to the Western World. You know them all: bin Laden firing a rifle, bin Laden walking through some cave, bin Laden ranting at a camera (in case you weren’t sure, that video of bin Laden busting some b-boy moves with D-12 isn’t really him. And that was really Chaser guy Chas Licciardello in the limo at APEC. Nono, the beard’s a fake).That’s all we had, and it left us all with an impression of “Osama bin Laden, in a cave, with an AK-47.”
In the game of global Cluedo that followed, the United States bagged Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum, they searched the hell out of the library and the sitting room, but nothing they did seem to bring them any closer. Nonetheless, persistence and an infinte budget paid off; when they did figure out where he was, they didn’t let the ghosts of Blackhawk Down or Desert One frighten them. 79 men (and a dog, apparently) boarded helicopters, flew in and closed the book on al Qaeda.

America happily trundled along after 9/11. Britney Spears got drunk, sobered up, shaved her head, made a comeback. Kanye West made some good music, some terrible music and cemented his jackass credentials by stage-crashing someone else’s award. Oprah got thinner, then fatter, then even fatter, all the while getting richer and happier. And all of this was more newsworthy than that guy in the cave, you know the one with the beard, wait I’ll send you a YouTube link to this great comedy sketch about him! Sure, getting on a plane in the US now meant a two hour ordeal involving a gropey guard and some x-ray porn, but that was as bad as it got for the folks back home. Life was different, but it was still cheap gas, summer blockbusters, greasy food, Vegas glitz and all the other things bin Laden despised about the country. The bogeyman was still out there, everyone knew, but it’s cool, our guys are on it. And even if he tries again, it won’t happen to me, right? What are the odds?
 Bin Laden might have terrified the world for years. But when his end came, the leader of the nation he tormented watched it happen from a comfy chair in an air conditioned office with a bunch of his office buddies, coffee and sandwiches on hand. The soldiers who mounted the attack were of a calibre bin Laden could only dream of, with the best weapons, the best technology, years of training, and the might of a vengeful superpower at their backs. They flew home to a personal thanks from their commander-in-chief, the best health care their nation could provide,  a comfy bed in a leafy suburb and the anonymous thanks of a grateful nation. Bin Laden’s soldiers lived in holes in the ground, fought with second-hand weapons and bombs that were as likely to kill them as their enemies, and spent every moment wondering if they were about to be immortalised on YouTube as “Grey Glowing Blob Number 3” in yet another night-vision gun camera clip from a helicopter two miles away.

This does not end well
Meanwhile, where was Osama? Enshrined in a palace, revered by his followers, consulted by fellow leaders? Not even close. From rich construction guy, spiritual inspiration and leader of men, he was reduced to a sick, skulking shadow, unable to go near the windows or browse the web for Kanye West videos. The US treated his body with the dignity that death earns us all, but right now they’re going through his emails, looking for ways to undo what little change he brought to the world. That last video of him staring blearily at a tiny TV on a cheap table was so sad I almost wanted to blow something up in his name, just to cheer him up a bit. Or at least buy him a decent plasma screen. His last days on Earth were spent making dodgy home videos calling Americans a bunch of jerks and just you wait I am so gonna make you pay hey can I hear helicopters? He was so 'successful' on September 11th, 2001 that ten years later he still had to keep a gun in his bedroom and stitch a few pathetic scraps of cash into the hem of his robe.

His actions meant millions of people were always a little bit worried about being harmed  by this one man. But bin Laden lived in mortal fear every day. The millions of people he had frightened were part of the single most powerful organisation our species has ever created: the Republic of the United States of America. Whether you applaud or condemn them, and regardless of the mistakes that mar their history, there is no questioning their power. And, thanks to bin Laden’s actions, the leaders of that organisation would stop at nothing to see him dead. Perhaps we were all that little bit frightened, but none of us hid for ten years, sewed money into our Levi’s or pulled our Internet connections.

He may have been the one with the bombs and the planes, but in the end, the person Osama bin Laden terrorised the most was himself.
And now he’s gone? You can make that trip to the US you’ve been too nervous to take. But you’d better hurry; they're probably going to take away the x-ray porn machines soon.


  1. oh, lovely. do you read giles coren? it's not that he writes about war, or nuclear power or anything, it's just that he, like you, has a lovely sense of rhythm.

  2. Most kind, thank you! Yes I like mister Coren's work; he can make a sentence do more than most can manage with a paragraph. Angry fellow though.

  3. "Rome wasn't built in a day."
    The mistake these guys make is in assuming that if they perpetrate a few random acts of violence, their enemies will "collapse like a house of cards."
    I would suggest that the damage is actually more subtle.

    These events have provided the Government with the perfect excuse to clamp down on all sorts of behaviours (not just those related to National Security).

    Conservatives (i.e. "the Government shouldn't interfere with individuals"-types) now demand that the Government conduct anal inspections of everyone (except themselves, of course), using microscopes.

    The NSA and other Government groups, now openly/legally spy on US citizens (instead of secretly like they did during the Cold War).

    Anyone who dares to say that this might be excessive, is labelled a "terrorist-loving socialist".

    Benjamin Franklin:
    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

    The irony is that whilst everyone was distracted by OBL, a bunch of corporations managed to cause the kind of damage that OBL could only dream of.
    An even bigger irony is that most of the CEOs involved weren't hunted down by the "World's biggest military force", but received performance bonuses instead!

    The lesson for future would-be terrorists is forget about bombs and swap to derivatives/stocks (i.e. move into the financial sector).

  4. Oops!
    I forgot to initial my comment.