Three Books About 9/11

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In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001, three of America's most prominent leftist intellectuals have weighed in with their decidedly heterodox thoughts on the events of that day.

The most recognizable name of the three is Gore Vidal, whose new book "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace" (Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books; 160 pages; $10) describes in part Vidal's take on September 11th. The book is relatively jerry-built structurally, consisting of an article about 9-11 rejected by Vanity Fair and then published in Italy, where it became a best seller. It should be said, however, that the original version of Vidal's essay (published in Italian under the title "The End of Liberty: Toward a New Totalitarianism") is longer than the American version, which has either been revised or sanitized, depending on how you look at it (the original contains a paragraph in which Vidal speculates that the wealthy Osama bin Laden chose to destroy the World Trade Center, which contained the offices of American Express, to avoid having to pay for the airline tickets of the hijackers, purchased with American Express cards).

When he's not being offensively flippant, Vidal waxes indignant, not at the hijackers, but at the American government. "There have been ominous signs," he writes, "that our fragile liberties have been dramatically at risk since the 1970s when the white-shirt-blue-suit-discreet-tie FBI reinvented itself from a corps of 'generalists,' trained in law and accounting, into a confrontational 'Special Weapons and Tactics' (aka SWAT) Green Beret-style army of warriors who like to dress up in camouflage or black ninja clothing and, depending on the caper, ski masks." Note the penultimate noun in that sentence: in Vidal's account, it's those who job it is to fight crime who are the criminals, and who pull the "capers."

For Vidal, the worst aspect of 9-11 is the extent to which the terrorist attacks are being used as an excuse to severely curtail American civil liberties (although this seems a little odd coming from an author who wrote a lengthy novel celebrating the man who suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War), and George W. Bush's statement that the terrorists hate us because of "our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other" rings, to Vidal, laughably hollow, since these words are coming from a man who, in Vidal's view, is doing more to damage the freedoms he purports to defend than Osama bin Laden could ever hope to do with a fleet of jumbo jets.

Unfortunately Vidal's thesis, as provocative as it is, is not coherent. The book feels cobbled together from a disparate group of articles, some dating back to 1997, and it's hard to see what Vidal's championing of Timothy McVeigh (in essays that have already been printed in Vidal's 2001 collection, "The Last Empire") has to do with the events of 9-11, except as another arguable example of American governmental perfidy.

Noam Chomsky's new book, "9-11" (Seven Stories Press; 125 pages; $8.95) consists of a series of interviews in which softball questions are lobbed at him by a series of mostly foreign journalists, about which he can pontificate (my favorite of these is a question from an Italian journalist: "Could you say something about connivance and the role of American secret service?" to which Chomsky replies, "I don't quite understand the question").

His take on the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, however, soon becomes clear: America is a terrorist nation, condemned as such by the World Court, and what happened on 9-11 is simply a matter of, in Malcolm X's memorable phrase, the chickens coming home to roost. He discourses at length (his editors apparently unwilling or unable to expunge repetition from one interview to the next) on American atrocities from Vietnam (which, in his opinion, "began as a U.S. attack against South Vietnam, which was always the main target of the U.S. wars," — a statement that would have been news to Ho Chi Minh) to Nicaragua and Sudan, among others. Unlike Vidal, however, Chomsky is not concerned with the possibility of civil liberties in the U.S. being eroded in the aftermath of 9-11 ("I do not think it will lead to a long-term restriction of rights internally in any serious sense," he says. "The cultural and institutional barriers to that are too firmly rooted, I believe").

Chomsky does make an intriguing case, though, that the U.S. response to the 9-11 attacks might have been different. "What was the right way for Britain to deal with IRA bombs in London?" he asks. "One choice would have been to send the RAF to bomb the source of their finances, places like Boston, or to infiltrate commandos to capture those suspected of involvement in such financing and kill them or spirit them to London to face trial. Putting aside feasibility, that would have been criminal idiocy. Another possibility was to consider realistically the background concerns and grievances, and to try to remedy them, while at the same time following the rule of law to punish criminals. That would make a lot more sense, one would think." Instead of this option, Chomsky points out, George W. Bush has made "virtually a declaration of war against much of the world," which might, Chomsky apocalyptically posits, result in "an imminent termination of the human experience."

Howard Zinn, in his book "Terrorism and War" (Seven Stories Press; 159 pages; $9.95) makes many of the same points as Chomsky (and in the same interview format), but in a tone more of sorrow than of anger: he comes off as Chomsky Lite. "We have to think about this awful thing that happened on September 11," Zinn states. "We need to feel deeply for the victims and the families. But we also need to learn from it." Part of the learning process is to try to make an effort to understand why those people contemptuously (and simple-mindedly) dismissed as "evildoers" would want to do what they did. This, it seems to me, is all to the good.

Zinn makes some good points when he deplores America's response to the terrorist attacks (for example, his argument that "the Bush administration is using the war as a cover for worsening the income gap in this country, while paying no attention to the problems of most of the American people, while enriching corporations"), but his solutions, including the removal of U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia, come perilously close to appeasement — the notion that if you just give the terrorists what they want, they'll leave you alone. This is impractical for as imperial a country as the U.S. — which is, one strongly suspects, Zinn's point. "We have to go through a real revolution in our thinking," he claims, "and no longer think of the Unites States as needing to be a superpower. Sweden is not worried about terrorists. Denmark, Holland, New Zealand. There are a lot of places in the world not worried about terrorists. They don't have their troops everywhere; they don't have their naval vessels everywhere; they're not bothering other people; they're not intervening. They don't have a record of massive military destruction and intervention. Let's be a more modest nation."

One has to be at least a little skeptical about how a people who will use any excuse to shout "We're Number One!" at the top of their lungs will take to the vision of a modest, non-interventionist America that Zinn proposes. But the books of these three men, as flawed in their respective executions as they may be, ask powerful questions that all Americans would do well to ponder. In a country that is still obsessing over "how" the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon could happen, we might all be better off if we tried asking a far more important question: "Why?"