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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The sleeping giant wakes up angry

With a file from Associated Press
Wednesday, September 12, 2001

After Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the man who planned and commanded the attack, Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, had private fears about what he had done. The admiral had lived in the United States as a naval attaché in the 1920s, and the experience had left him with an abiding respect for American dynamism and power.

"I'm afraid we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled it with terrible resolve," he said.

Today, as Americans absorb what is being called their second Pearl Harbor, the giant is stirring again.

Once Americans get over their shock over yesterday's attacks on their homeland -- the worst in 225 years -- they are bound to be angry. Their wrath will shake the world.

"The world has forgotten what an angry America is like," said terrorism expert John Thompson, of Toronto's Mackenzie Institute.

After Pearl Harbor, the United States mobilized its enormous energy and vast resources for an all-out campaign to defeat Japan -- a campaign that included the invention, production and use of a fearsome new weapon, the atom bomb.

There was little hesitation or second thought. Americans simply rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

Something similar may happen now. Expect an all-out war on terrorism that will almost certainly include some kind of U.S. military strike. Expect a more assertive United States, far more willing to throw its weight around and far less likely to listen to the doubts of its allies or the United Nations.

"Canada has gone to war five times in the 20th century with less provocation than this," Thompson said. Imagine what the United States will do.

The problem, of course, is whom to go to war against. It's far from clear who is responsible for the attacks, and even if the culprits are eventually identified, fighting a dispersed and furtive band of terrorists is different than taking on an enemy nation in a conventional war.

"In many respects, this is significantly worse than Pearl Harbor, and we don't know who the enemy is," Lewis Eisenberg, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said after watching "my two towers" fall before his eyes. But, "as Americans, we will pull together and do what's right."

Yesterday's attacks were indeed worse than Pearl Harbor, in several ways. Pearl Harbor was a devastating attack on a U.S. military base in the Hawaiian Islands. Most of the 3,500 killed and wounded were men in uniform. The victims of yesterday's attacks were defenceless civilians, and they were killed much closer to home, in the American political and economic heartland.

No one knew yesterday how many were killed or injured, but given that 50,000 people work in the World Trade Center on any given day -- not including visiting tourists -- the toll could surpass Pearl Harbor's 3,500.

At a worst case, it might even surpass the worst death toll in U.S. military history. That day was Sept. 17, 1862, when 20,000 died in the Civil War's Battle of Antietam. That, of course, was a fight among Americans.

An attack of this scale on the American homeland is something new in U.S. history. Unlike the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians and the Japanese, Americans came out of the calamitous 20th century without suffering a single major attack on their cities and towns.

While London was blitzed, Tokyo and Warsaw flattened and Leningrad besieged, New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles emerged from the two world wars unscathed.

The only notable attack on the United States at home took place during the War of 1812, when British troops burned down the White House. That is why yesterday's events are likely to have such lasting impact.

Any lingering sense that the United States was safe from the world's turmoil vanished in the fire and smoke of the crumbling World Trade Centre.

It is doubtful that Americans have ever felt so vulnerable as they do today. All their bristling ballistic missiles, all their nuclear submarines, all their highly trained soldiers and pilots have been rendered useless by a small band of militants who may have been armed with something as small as a jackknife.

U.S. feelings of invincibility have been dashed before -- first in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when six people died, later in the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people, and attacks on Americans abroad.

These forced Washington to step up law-enforcement efforts and tighten security.

But there has never been anything quite like this.

The Mackenzie Institute's John Thompson puts it simply: "This is the worst single attack made on the United States in its history."

Wesley Wark, a Toronto international affairs specialist, expects a harsh military response of some kind -- perhaps beginning with an attack on Afghanistan, whose militant Taliban leaders have given sanctuary to terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden.

"This attack has probably awoken a sleeping beast, an American superpower that will unleash its fury," Wark said. "There will be tremendous pressure to take gloves off and strike back no matter what the consequences."

There will, of course, be a huge police effort to catch the masterminds. Such an effort bagged some of the perpetrators of the World Trade Center bomb attack in 1993.

But Wark thinks that the United States may go further and adopt an Israeli-style policy of assassinating terrorist leaders, even if that means ignoring or changing a law that forbids U.S. officials from having anything to do with such killings. The law was passed by Congress after CIA attempts to kill Cuba's Fidel Castro were uncovered. "There won't be any patience for half-measures or diplomacy," Wark says. "The U.S. military leadership will brook no opposition if it gets into this war."

The problem, again, is to identify and track down the enemy. That will be particularly hard given the failure of U.S. intelligence to predict yesterday's attacks, revealing a woeful unpreparedness. Since Pearl Harbor, the U.S. intelligence services have never fallen down so badly.

The armed forces, too, are unprepared for a war on terrorism. Like many armies over history, the Pentagon has been busy preparing to fight the last war -- in the case, the war in the Persian Gulf.

Since that 1991 conflict, Pentagon planners have concentrated on force projection -- that is, getting U.S. forces ready to move quickly and in force to a foreign hot spot like the Gulf.

Defending the U.S. homeland, and defending it against terrorists, is a different kettle of fish. Washington looked almost pathetic yesterday when it sent aircraft carriers steaming up the eastern seaboard after the New York attacks.

What could an aircraft carrier do to stop a passenger airliner piloted by terrorists from slamming into an office building? Shoot it down?

The Pentagon may have to change its whole military strategy, which is based on high-tech weaponry that does a wonderful job of limiting military casualties in a conventional conflict, but little to protect civilians from terrorism.

"What does a stealth bomber do for you today? What does a cruise missile do for you?" says Joel Sokolsky, a defence expert at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. "In this kind of conflict, the fact that you have 10 aircraft-carrier groups means nothing."

On the other hand, the attacks may actually boost support for a high-tech missile defence system, designed to knock down incoming ballistic missiles from terrorist "rogue states."

Critics of the system have always argued that it was silly to invest so much in shooting down missiles if terrorists could smuggle a nuclear bomb into New York Harbor or put a bus full of explosives outside the White House. Those critics will feel vindicated by what happened yesterday.

But backers of missile defence will argue that give the new aggressiveness of international terrorism, the United States needs all the defences it can get.

Yesterday's attacks may also lead Washington to play world cop as it has never done before.

"The U.S. is the world's sole superpower and its ability to deter attacks is essential to its well-being," says Aurel Braun, who teaches international relations at the University of Toronto. "It cannot be allowed to be seen as a helpless giant."

Since the end of the Cold War made the United States the only superpower, Washington has wielded its big stick with relative restraint and often with deep reluctance. It intervened in the Bosnia war only after the conflict had begun to burn itself out. It withdrew from Somalia after a handful of its soldiers were killed in a street battle. It refused to get involved in halting the Rwanda genocide.

Yesterday's events could force the United States to be more muscular, intervening in troubled, chaotic places that it would prefer to avoid, in hopes of establishing a worldwide Pax Americana.

"If an unruly place like Afghanistan can result in havoc in your own streets, then you have to act," Thompson says.

The United States may take a page from British history and resort to gunboat diplomacy, using force to create a "limited imperium" led by Washington.

He says the United States might even be forced to take over and run troubled countries like Afghanistan to prevent them from being used as staging grounds for attacks on the United States.

The trouble with that, of course, is that it would expose the United States to charges of colonialism. Militant leaders would have new fuel for their jeremiads against the Great Satan.

"Playing global cop makes you a target," Sokolsky says. "When the U.S. intervenes in foreign conflicts, people there don't appreciate it."

However the United States reacts to yesterday's horrors, few doubt that it will do so with the same determination and vigour it showed in 1941.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt learned of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, he marvelled that Japan would take on the United States. "What kind of people do they think we are?" he said.

The world is going to find out once again.


Life Goes On

Voices From After the Fall, The Facts Behind the Fear, and the preview of a new Discovery documentary filmed at Ground Zero.


(RealPlayer required)

  • Six-month Memorial for Sept. 11 - U.S. President George Bush speaks from the White House. "The terrorists will remember Sept. 11 as the day their reckoning began," he said.

  • In Canada - Relatives of Canadian victims of the World Trade Centre attacks wonder why there's no six-month memorial here at home. video reports

  • Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.
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