Monday, January 29, 2007

Idiot of the Week

Perhaps we should blame the cold weather, figuring that our brains don't function as well when winter arrives with a vengence. Or maybe it's our supposed desire for 15 minutes of fame, which prompts some of us to say (or do) almost anything. Or maybe it's a culture that simply refuses to condemn bad behavior or specious thinking. Whatever the reason, we've had no shortage of recent nomines for our "Idiot of the Week" award.

Our latest recipient is particularly deserving of that honor, for asking (in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Was 9-11 Really that Bad," and postulating that the U.S. has somehow "overreacted" to the threat of Islamofacism. Those are the thoughts of Dr. David A. Bell, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, and a "contributing editor" to The New Republic (surprise, surprise). While claiming "no disrespect to the victims of 9-11 and the men and women of our armed forces," Professor Bell says that we really don't know what "suffering" is all about.

"IMAGINE THAT on 9/11, six hours after the assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon, terrorists had carried out a second wave of attacks on the United States, taking an additional 3,000 lives. Imagine that six hours after that, there had been yet another wave. Now imagine that the attacks had continued, every six hours, for another four years, until nearly 20 million Americans were dead. This is roughly what the Soviet Union suffered during World War II, and contemplating these numbers may help put in perspective what the United States has so far experienced during the war against terrorism."

And, predictability, he blames conservatives for over-stating the threat posed by Islamic terrorists:

" Of course, the 9/11 attacks also conjured up the possibility of far deadlier attacks to come. But then, we were hardly ignorant of these threats before, as a glance at just about any thriller from the 1990s will testify. And despite the even more nightmarish fantasies of the post-9/11 era (e.g. the TV show "24's" nuclear attack on Los Angeles), Islamist terrorists have not come close to deploying weapons other than knives, guns and conventional explosives. A war it may be, but does it really deserve comparison to World War II and its 50 million dead? Not every adversary is an apocalyptic threat."

It's hard to believe anyone could produce such drivel, let alone someone who is a member of the history faculty at one of the nation's leading universities. But, alas, America academia has produced more than its share of loons and imbeciles as of late, and apparently Dr. Bell deserves a place in their ranks.

Indeed, Bell's "arguements" have more holes than the proverbial block of Swiss. Let's begin with his comparison of U.S. casualties in the War on Terror, and those suffered by the Soviet Union during World War II. It's an invalid comparison, but one often cited by the American left. We really don't know what war is because we haven't lost 20 million people in a single conflict, as the Russians did between 1941 and 1945. The corollary to that assertion goes something like this: maybe if we had experienced such horric losses in the past, America wouldn't be so anxious to use military force and impose its will around the world.

But Dr. Bell fails to address the obvious questions about Soviet casualty totals in World War II. Why did so many Russian soldiers and civilians die? The short answer: military and political incompetence on a scale that simply boggles the mind, and the failure of the Soviet state to meet the basic responsibility of protecting its citizens.

After liquidating millions of ordinary Russians in the Great Terror of early 1930s, Stalin set his sights on the Red Army, purging thousands of competent officers in the latter half of that decade. Many were executed because Stalin and his political commisars viewed them as potential threats. Three of the five pre-war Marshals in the Soviet Army died, along with most of the corps commanders. A few lucky ones--including an up-and-coming general named Georgi Zhukov--found themselves exiled to the Far East. In their place, Stalin stocked his senior officer corps with party hacks and others who were politically reliable, but clueless on the battlefield. But not to worry; the Soviet dictator believed his "friendship" with Nazi Germany would secure the peace for years, giving him enough time to rebuild the ranks of military leaders before the war clouds gathered.

It was a fool's paradise, as Stalin would discover on June 22, 1941, when Hitler's legions stormed across the Russian border. Stalin had rejected intelligence reports of a German build-up along the frontier, and discounted early accounts of an invasion. In fact, the Soviet dictator retreated to his Kremlin apartment and remained there for weeks, barely communicating with anyone, and creating strategic paralysis at the top of Russia's high command. Meanwhile, Stalin's battlefield apparatchiks led the Red Army to a military disaster of the first order. Entire formations crumbled; more than a million Russian soldiers were killed or wounded during the first six months of the campaign, and more than 3 million were taken prisoner. Casualties among Russian civilians were equally appalling.

In other words, millions of Russians died because their leader failed to heed a growing threat and respond appropriately. Sound familiar? Successive U.S. presidents--including Bill Clinton--took a pass on Islamic terrorism for 20 years, and we paid for those mistakes on the morning of September 11, 2001. Three thousand American killed in two attacks may equal only a few minutes' fighting at Stalingrad, but it doesn't mitigate the shock and horror of 9-11--nor the responsibility of government to prevent it from happening again. The comparison between the United States of September 2001 and Russia 60 years earlier lies not in the number of dead, but in the failure of two governments--one free, the other totalitarian--to comprehend a threat and deter it.

Which brings us to the second half of Dr. Bell's arguement, namely that the U.S. has overreacted to Islamofacism. Not every enemy is an apocalyptic threat, he reminds us. But then again, how do you define "apocalypse?" The limited attacks of 9-11 produced an economic impact of almost $600 billion, according to a 2002 study by the Naval Postgraduate School. New York City lost over 100,000 jobs and the nation's airline industry teetered on the brink of collapse.

That may not sound like much in a $12-trillion dollar economy, but let's suppose that Al-Qaida had used suitcase nukes (instead of airliners) in September 2001. Portions of lower Manhattan and the nation's capital would remain uninhabitable to this day, with corresponding economic ripple effects that would be measured in the trillions of dollars. Beyond that, the potential impact on our way of life would be incalculable. And, lest Dr. Bell forget, Al Qaida has long been interested in weapons of mass of mass destruction, as evidenced by documents uncovered in Afghanistan and other locations. True, bin Laden and his minions haven't obtained nuclear devices (as far as we know), but that doesn't eliminate that nightmare scenario. On September 10, 2001, few "experts" believed that Al Qaida could successfully hijack four commercial airliners, and fly three of them into U.S. landmarks, killing thousands of our fellow citizens.

But, if that threat isn't a sufficient threat to our way of life, consider this "alternative" scenario. Islamic extremists, emboldened by a quick U.S. retreat from Iraq, seize control of that country and (eventually) other gulf states. Terrorists now control much of the world's oil supply, and with help from Iran and North Korea, they gain access to nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems. Would that be a threat to our country? A true vision of the apocalypse?

Dr. Bell would probably disagree. He seems to favor a more "measured" response to the terrorist threat, and that's exactly the approach that got us into trouble in the 1990s. Back in those days, terrorism was considered a law enforcement and intelligence problem. There were a series of attacks, scores of Americans died, our response was inconsistent and the problem only grew worse.

Looking at the daily bombings and gunfights in Iraq through the soda straw of current events, it's easy to dismiss Islamic terror as a threat to our way of life. But viewed through a larger prism--Al Qaida's desire to obtain WMD; it's push to establish an anti-American caliphate in much of the Islamic world; Iran's race to perfect the bomb and it's support for terrorist proxies --the War on Terror should be seen (correctly) as a generational struggle, a conflict that poses the greatest challenge to our nation and our civilization.

For deliberately downplaying the defining threat of the 21st Century, Professor Bell is our "Idiot of the Week."


jamminedward said...

I'm a JHU alum and getting ready to cover the sheepskin with a black drape; also writing letter to the school administration (sans contribution check). Hope there's lots more like me--betting there are.

rockdalian said...

As an aside, I recently read that suitcase nukes are an urban myth. I do not remember where I read this. I would appreciate your take on this, as you are more in these matters than I.

Simon said...

Dr. Bell's mastery of risk/benefit analysis is about what one would expect of a professor of French history, non-existent. Like too many academics, he thinks he is much smarter than he is in fact. His analysis is fallacious and simple-minded in ways that he would find difficult to understand if any attempt were made to explain them to him. He is a fool for pretending expertise where he has none. Talk about disproportionate response -- parents spend remarkable sums of money to have their children mis-educated by the likes of Professor Bell at elite universities.

Tom Paine said...

Bell is correct. It IS an exaggeration to compare 9/11 to WW2.

But that's also an "apples to oranges" comparison.

It would have been very good if France and England had "over-reacted" to Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 by removing Hitler from power -- which would have taken two divisions of troops at the time.

Since they didn't have the wit or courage to "over-react", Europe suffered 20+ million dead and a continent destroyed.

"Those who will not learn from history are condemned to repeat it." -- Santayana

Bell has learned nothing from his own discipline.

Consul-At-Arms said...

Thanks for deconstructing the fallacy that you have to fight as stupidly as Stalin in order to have moral standing in a war.

Seahorse Valley, there were two U.S. ADM (atomic demolition munition) systems, the MADM and SADM. Neither of which fit into a suitcase, although the smaller one was man-portable. These systems yielded, roughly, sub-Hiroshima-sized detonations.

Whether the USSR had a smaller, suitcase sized model I don't know. W.E.B. Griffin discusses this issue, apparently knowledgeably, in his latest novel, The Hunters.

I've linked to you here: