The Un-Americans

There may be no one in the world as remote from American pop culture as an Al Qaeda terrorist. Even in their alleged sleeper role, Al Qaeda people seem bizarrely disassociated (all these Arab men sharing furnished rental units). And yet, increasingly, it seems they have some subtle and diabolical knowledge about us. They know us intimately enough to wage a war of the most nuanced cultural sophistication.

If, in a conventional war, you naturally seek to cripple industrial production, in a war with a modern service economy, you strike at the security of the office high-rise. In this, the terrorists show two points of uncommon perception: The first is about an advanced economy – it’s the confidence of the worker (who is also the consumer) that, for maximum economic damage, you want to undermine. The second is about the nature of American life – in this fractured, diffuse, and divided country, if you blow up a big office, everyone will feel it. The office is the functional hearth of the nation.

And it is not just the foundations of the office building but the most basic activity of any office – opening the mail – that these twenty-first-century Sun Tzus have thought to undermine. Perfectly ordinary, unsuspecting, mid-to-lower-level office workers – America’s true everypeople – would slice through an envelope and get dusted with anthrax spores.

This mail would not just be ordinary mail. It would be a letter to the editor or to your congressman: The most benign form of public discourse would suddenly be turned into a violent act. What’s more, the terrorists would target the exact points – the media and Congress – at which the culture projects itself most melodramatically (it would have had a much different effect, if, say, the germs were sent to Ford).

Tom Brokaw went live with a trembling jaw; before this, Dan Rather had done his version of Jell-O (Peter Jennings is the only network anchor who has remained composed – ABC can bill itself as the network that doesn’t cry: no sobbing, just substance). For a moment, you could see the network tears as part of the coming together of the nation, part of the flag-waving message that we are all as one – anchormen feel what we all feel. And yet, clearly, it was disconcerting – these guys had lost their cool. So much so that this seemed to be the point: Get Tom and Dan to freak and fall apart in front of America. As for Capitol Hill, there was not only a sense of blind panic (of course, with an accompanying press conference), but of cluelessness. The very government that had been issuing words of moderation and restraint obviously had no idea how to cope.

The sleeper-cell thing doesn’t make a lot of sense – preprogrammed kamikaze Arabs figuring out the symbolic logic of America. You don’t pick this stuff up from lap dancers.

Al Qaeda could fuck with any symbol.

This surely isn’t caveman stuff. it isn’t even ordinary blow-up-a-busy-junction terrorism. Indeed, the bin Laden tape that was delivered after the first attack on Afghanistan seemed, by its very staging – Hello from the cavemen – to implicitly say this was anything but primitive. (Maureen Dowd’s funny line about going to war with the Flintstones seems quaint now.)

Nor does the sleeper-cell thing make a lot of sense – preprogrammed kamikaze Arabs figuring out the symbolic logic of America. You don’t pick this stuff up from a lap dancer.

This is evil-genius stuff.

So how does Al Qaeda come to have such fluency with the levers of American life? One explanation is that they hate our culture so passionately that they’ve come to obsess on it and it’s therefore taken on some fearful clarity for them. This is, in essence, the president’s position – they hate our freedoms (as he puts it). So they are attacking what they abhor: the edifice wherein men and women work together, and the mass media that propagandizes secular American culture. Through their hatred they have conceived a brilliant and evil cultural critique.

Then there’s the idea that we’re so open, anyone can know us. We even provide a never-ending series of plain-language instructions as to our own weaknesses and points of exposure. The Oklahoma City bombing vividly demonstrated what happens when you blow up a big office structure. This act is qualitatively different from bombing a nightclub or fast-food joint. It’s an attack at the core rather than at the margins. And then there’s the great Tylenol-tampering incident – the commonness and randomness is the gimmick. And, of course, the Ted Kaczynski packages. Is there somebody back at Al Qaeda headquarters keeping clip files on this stuff? All the great American sucker punches?

There is, too, another ever-so-logical, tempered, and restrained point of view, which is that Al Qaeda has had some great luck. It was just incredible good fortune to have managed to hijack those planes. (True: One plane would have been lucky; three seems to be outlandish luck.) And what a fluke to have brought both towers down in such balletic fashion – come on, could they really have been expecting more than to do great damage to the upper floors? And this letter stuff? A couple of Al Qaedaians rented their apartment from the Realtor wife of the editor of one of the Florida-based tabloids – so perhaps this was not a calculated strike against the media at all, but simply a landlord-tenant dispute?

Upon the initial reports of the germ letters, you might reasonably have wondered if Al Qaeda wasn’t getting credit for the work of everyday media-hating American wackos. The distinction the Feds kept making – that this was a criminal investigation rather than, implicitly, a terrorist investigation – was, for a little while at least, strangely reassuring. But then, with letters and infections popping up around the country, that reassurance faded (in fact, started to look a lot like ineptness or a cover-up), and it no longer seemed much like luck or a fluke or coincidence or run-of-the-mill criminals.

Still, the thing is – and it is part of the insidious power of what we are calling “recent events” – no explanation fits what’s happening.

The one explanation that increasingly seems to make sense, doesn’t make sense: that some Saudi Arabian or Egyptian or other Gulf-state national is sent to live an itinerant American life with orders to parse and deconstruct and weaponize the myths and symbols of the culture.

It’s a comedy concept.

Or it’s a thriller: The demented pop-culture savant wreaking his havoc (you can hear his high-pitched laugh).

No, logic says they know too much about us. They know just how we act and how we’ll react. We’re being played.

And so – and here’s the rub – as events unfold, the story begins to diverge from the original thesis: that this is the first foreign attack on our shores since Pearl Harbor (and hence, why we’re off now bombing the foreigners).

If they know more than they logically should have known, if they are familiar in a way that only the familiar can be, if the pieces fall together too neatly, if it all begins to seem too good to be true, then it is, ipso facto, an inside job.

It is possible to see these nineteen men as not Middle Easterners or Muslims or even Al Qaedaians, but as at least half-Americans. While there may be some comfort in calling them “sleepers,” that may just be another name for immigrants with conflicting loyalties. (The other day, the Times ran a story from France headlined “In Suburban Squalor Near Paris, Echoes of Jihad” – are there no such echoes in Jersey City or Paterson?) As immigrants, they may well see themselves, as generations have before them, as leading parallel lives – the old life and the new. The former life and the American life. (Did they want to hang out with J.Lo? Did they hate others – or themselves – for wanting to hang out with J.Lo?) They may know so much about America because they are by some factor Americans (even if they never wanted to become Americans, they may have). And if they are Americans, they can, logically, be disaffected Americans.

They may, I am saying, have something in common with Timothy McVeigh. They may have picked up a strain of American craziness (on top of Middle Eastern craziness). My earlier crack about the lap dancer may be wrong. It implies what we take for granted – that they were engaging in furtive-foreigner activity, sexual tourism. Instead of seeing this the way we would see it if they were Americans – as potentially marginal, depressed, lonely, unsocialized behavior (for further scrutiny, the sexual repression angle: i.e., Mohamed Atta, his woman-hatred and his thing for B-girls). Combine this with – like McVeigh – a whole set of magnified, abstract, impersonal, nutty grievances.

One problem with this theory is that there were nineteen of them. Nineteen crazies acting in concert seems, in scale, different from McVeigh and his cohort, Terry Nichols. As different as the Murrah Federal Building is from the World Trade Center.

But exactly how different may be an important question to try to answer.

Let’s say it is half an attack by foreign enemies and half an attack by home-grown nuts. Let’s at least wonder if they were programmed, Manchurian Candidate-style, from abroad, or if, here in Florida or wherever, unhappy, unloved, disappointed, watching television, absorbing the vibes of everyday American life, picking up the tabs at the supermarket (puzzling over them, anyway), hating or loving Tom Brokaw on the Nightly News, they caught the crazy bug. Or, again, a little of both. They came here with a grudge – but here the grudge might have gotten grimmer, and smarter, and pretty slick too.


The Un-Americans