e + 1 = 0

September 13, 2001

I usually write ZedneWeb entries in the evening and post them after midnight. This is because I can only access my web server from home, and it helps me compose my thoughts somewhat before posting. It also means that any post on ZedneWeb can only refer to events as recent as the previous day. Normally, I don’t talk about breaking news, so this doesn’t cause confusion.

Wednesday morning, I started compiling notes and links (included below). I can’t really say for certain why. I feel like it’s very important that I speak out about the attacks, but if you pressed me I’d admit that I’m not sure what I’m saying or why it’s important.

Looking at what I gathered, I see almost nothing about the disaster itself but quite a bit about how we must not react too quickly and why peace is important. It occurs to me that this could be considered insensitive, but I assure you that this is not my intent. This is me trying to deal with the unthinkable. My strongest desire right now is to prevent something like this from happening again, and I don’t think that a military response can accomplish that. We need more, and I don’t know what that might be.

And, realistically, no one who has the power to make these decisions will be affected by what I write.

Notes from Wednesday morning

Dave Winer has collected more news and reactions. I've disagreed with Mr Winer’s view of technology at times, but he has always responded well to national crises by gathering useful information and analysis. I thank him for that.

Lance Knobel quotes a friend of his, who finds the political response “facile”:

Many called for the US to “finally do something” about terrorism or Bin Laden, to “go to the root of the issue” or to “act decisively”. I think such statements, along with the comparisons to Pearl Harbor—where there was an identifiable enemy with identifiable aims—bespeak an almost incredible lack of understanding of what can be done to protect a free society from this kind of thing.

More seriously, the comparisons to Pearl Harbor are flawed simply because we don’t know who the enemy is. Jon Carroll advises patience, noting that we must not act without a clear idea of what we’re trying to accomplish:

Patience is now the hardest thing. Patience is now the most necessary thing. The danger is that our retaliation will be rapid, scattershot and partial. That would be disastrous. Our response, when it comes, should be accurate, convincing and complete.

A Guardian special report considers our possible responses and warns us of the dangers of meeting violence with violence:

Emotionally, such an attack would doubtlessly be gratifying—fulfilling a general desire to “do something” and a clamour for action rather than words. But, if anything, it could achieve the opposite—creating enemies not just among governments but their citizens as well.

I find reading the international reactions to events like these provides a much-needed outside perspective. American news sources, by and large, are still too close to the events to think in larger terms than We were attacked! (The headline of my local paper read “Under Seige”. Yeah, there’s a way to avoid fanning the flames of panic and rage. Good going, guys.)

Writing about the 2000 New Years Day celebration and the associated security, Salman Rushie warns against letting fear rule our lives:

It is also alarming to think that the real battles of the new century may be fought in secret, between adversaries accountable to few of us, one claiming to act on our behalf, the other hoping to scare us into submission.

Jerome Camus suggests that the attackers weren’t necessarily an immense group with hundreds of people and complex logistics, closely mirroring my own thinking on the subject:

It appears very plausible that a small, dedicated group could evade the CIA, NSA and FBI nets; this is consistent with guerilla warfare tactics of small mobile units that are difficult to track down, create significant damage and make the enemy unsure of itself….

How many people does it take to hijack a plane? Not hundreds. To hijack four planes merely takes four times as many people and some longer-term planning. West-coast-bound flights take off at regular intervals; the attackers probably had their choice of flights to attack.

Mr Camus also reflects on the media response, finding it as unsatisfactory as I did. The attacks have been described as “cowardly” and “against freedom”, and I find both characterizations unsatisfactory (I forgive the people involved, though, because we're all upset and prone to rhetorical excess). As Doc Searls points out, this attack had nothing to do with freedom. It was about anger and hatred, and I think we’d do well to ask ourselves where this anger and hatred have come from. Not because it would somehow mitigate the attacks (nothing plausible could), but because we’re interested in preventing more. As Mr Searls’s sister writes, we must be leaders of the Sane world and act for the good of Mankind.

I gave some space yesterday to concerns about how the reaction to this disaster may result in reductions of freedom and personal liberty. I compiled that list late in the evening, tired, shocked, and disbelieving. Those are important concerns, but not the most important, and I apologize to anyone who thought they were inappropriate. I don't mean to trivialize the disaster or the work being done by the law enforcement and intelligence communities. I’m just trying to work through my thoughts, and not all of them will be important and relevant. Eric Norlin provides some perspective from the intelligence community, including a response to Eric S. Raymond’s deprecation of security measures.

A few weeks back, Mr Norlin reprinted a letter about politics and Buddhism that doesn’t speak directly to this incident, but does have a lot of philosophical background that does. I found it fascinating reading, and I’m saddened that this is the first opportune moment I've had to mention it here.

Kevin Jamieson considers larger questions in his own response to the disaster, which I mention because his experience of God and prayer is similar to my own.

Some uglier responses: So greatly are we disliked in parts of the Middle East, that people celebrated in the streets. I’d like to believe that Americans would not dance and sing if, say, some disaster had struck the Soviet Union, but we have our share of small-minded bigots (many of whom are already calling for the destruction of Islam, as if an entire culture were personally responsible). From Salon’s interviews with American Muslims:

Whoever did this is a criminal. This is against innocents. If this act was done by a Muslim, according to Islam, this guy is not a Muslim, because a true Muslim will not kill or harm innocent people or civilians. Whoever did this, they have a personal purpose or a political goal and they hide behind the religion. The word Islam, in Arabic, means peace.

There’s a temptation to dismiss sentiments like that, given Islam’s history of war, but remember that Christianity’s stated devotion to peace didn’t prevent hundreds of years of warfare in Europe, or colonialism, or slavery. If we attack innocents in an attempt to get revenge, we will be no better than those who attacked us. If we truly desire peace, we must break the cycle of war and deal with the fundamental problems. An article in the International Herald-Tribune describes the futility of seeking revenge and notes that more sophisticated defenses are not the answer:

The practical uselessness of revenge has repeatedly been demonstrated in the Middle East, since those who employ terrorism are not functioning on a pragmatic scale of reward and punishment.

There are ordinary security measures that can be taken or improved, but the nature of attacks mounted from within the regular functions of society, means that no comprehensive or conclusive defense exists.

The final and most profound lesson of these events...is that the only real defense against external attack is serious, continuing, and courageous effort to find political solutions for national and ideological conflicts that involve the United States.

But that’s long term. For now, we must be patient, and when we are certain of what to do, we must do it. But let's not lose ourselves in the process.

Even as I write this, events are proceeding: the Guardian has reported that the FBI has already arrested suspects.

And from the evening

Salon has posted more articles worth checking out; I’ll summarize their thrusts:

I’m not sure if I’ll write another entry for tomorrow. I could easily spend another day immersed in news and reflections and analysis and recommendations, but I’m going to try and spend time away from it. I had my usual karate lesson today, and I spent most of it thinking only about what I was doing; the outside world simply fell away. I want to get some distance from the facts and speculation; it’s distracting me from the horror of the event itself.

We all suffered a great loss on Tuesday. For me, it’s mostly abstract, but for many, many others, the loss is personal and concrete. I don’t want to lose sight of their pain and forget that real people have died. For those who have lost friends and relatives, there is nothing I can say that will make things better.

I wish there were.