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Sunday, June 1, 2008
By Steven L. Taylor

A reader kindly did the needed GoogleWork to find the Monty Phyton skit I was looking for the other day at this site. The piece is from Another Monty Python Record and here’s the transcript:

(Sound of telephone ringing - the phone is answered and we here Michael say:)

Michael Palin :
Hello I am just listening to this record with my wife and our au-pair and I’d like to say how shocked we are that a pleasant collection of Norwegian folk songs should be turned into an excuse for communist propaganda of the shoddiest kind. What’s gone wrong with the world. I can’t even take a bath without 6 or 7 communists jumping in with me. They’re in my shirt cupboard and Breshnev and Kosegan are in the kitchen now eating my wife’s jam. Oh they are cutting off my legs. I can see them peeping out of my wife’s blouse. Why doesn’t Mr Maulding do something about it before it is to late. Ohhhh….God…

(Sound of Telephone being hung up)

And while, yes, this a silly comedy bit, I really do think of it quite frequently when listening to some in our political discourse talk about terrorism. To them, there literally is a terrorist around every corner and we are, indeed, locked in a struggle over our very existence with the jihadists. In fact, many people (just look at the Dunkin’ Donut business) in the US seem to believe that we are locked in a struggle with Islamic terrorists who are both everywhere and that is equally (if not more) dangerous as was the case in the Cold War with the USSR. First off, the Soviets had enough nuclear weapons to lay waste to most of the United States. It would take an awful lot of 9/11s to come even close to that kind of destructive power. Second, aside from outright destruction, it was at least a theoretical possibility (although a rather unlikely one) that the Soviets had the conventional military power to eventually defeat the US and its western European allies to control the globe.1

As James Joyner wrote over a year ago:

It is simply inconceivable that the Islamists will defeat us militarily, let alone impose their culture on us. As scary as Bin Laden and company are, they are not going to amass an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of annihiliting the planet many times over.

Indeed, James’ entire post is worth reading, as it does contain quite a bit regarding this debate, with various links to others on the topic.

The most important element here, and one I have stressed before, is that sound public policy (like medical treatment) requires sound diagnosis. If we want efficacious anti-terrorism policy, we need a realistic assessment of the threat. There is no evidence to suggest that terrorists have the power to destroy “our way of life.” There is no evidence to suggest that 9/11 was the beginning of bigger things for al Qaeda and friends. There is no evidence of a massive, coordinating wave of terrorism aimed at the US. We2 made some very flawed assumption in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks that have led to some very problematic policy choices.

As Kingdaddy wrote over two years ago:

In fact, almost five years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans have a very hazy understanding of how big the terrorist threat really is. The Administration’s vague, alarmist statements—which has increased, not decreased, the fears that real terrorists have tried to manufacture—have provided very little useful information. In fact, acute secrecy may be cloaking the Administration’s own ignorance of real terrorist threats, or lack thereof. While 19 hijackers got extremely, diabolically lucky in 2001, there may not be many similar cells of domestic and foreign terrorists plotting attacks today. In fact, given the convenience of American targets in Iraq, Al Qaeda’s new strategy of “terrorism by franchise,” and Al Qaeda’s renewed emphasis on the “near enemy” (such as the recent bombings in Egypt), there may be no Al Qaeda plans to attack the United States at all.

Indeed, if we need an example, by the way, of what policy looks like when the threat is misdiagnosed, we need look no further than Iraq. Two of the main rationales for that war, Saddam’s WMD program and the likelihood that he would give those weapons to terrorists to attack the West turned out to be baseless. There were no weapons and their was no grand strategic terrorist plot emanating from Iraq.

To bring the post full circle: it strikes me as ultimately counterproductive to see terrorists everywhere. They exist, yes, but they aren’t in the kitchen eating your wife’s jam, and it is safe to take a bath.

I am waiting to see, btw, how this issue emerges in the general election campaign. To what degree are we going to be served a narrative that focuses on an existential threat, or what degree are we going to get a realistic assessment of that threat?

Speaking of Kingdaddy, al Qaeda’s goal and American grand strategy vis-à-vis terrorism, I would recommend this post from over three years ago: Why do terrorists want nukes?, which raises the kinds of questions that we really need to talk about in the broader public discourse, but yet we do not (and probably won’t).

  1. Still, Red Dawn scenarios aside, the likelihood of the Soviets being able to militarily extent their forces into the Western hemisphere wasn’t all that plausible. []
  2. And I include me in that “we”. []
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5 Responses to “The Python Skit I was Looking for (Plus Thoughts on the War on Terror)”

  1. Captain D Says:

    I’m pretty sure there’s a terrorist in my toilet. It keeps plugging up despite repeated plunging and hiring a plumber to snake it.

    Surely it’s a terrorist, trying to spread disease by keeping my night soil in the house.

  2. Jenda Says:

    Pretty much spot on, except that the focus on the near enemy came about as a reaction to our incursions into Aghanistan, but especially as a result of our incursion into Iraq. At elast tehy say it did, and in this case it makes sense to em that they are tellign the truth, and not just because it is what thyey say in English AND in Arabic.
    A pretty decent reason to ahve gone into Iraq, and one of those first put forward by the allegedly fuzzy-minded Bushiks.

  3. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    I fear you will need to be a tad more clear.

  4. Captain D Says:

    I guess after a second consideration I do have some serious thoughts to offer on the subject.

    It is certainly true that terrorists are not likely to amass an arsenal that approaches what the Soviets had. It is also true that there isn’t any public evidence of a terrorist activity at home since September 11.

    As a strategist, I have to ask why. The September 11 attacks were not, as was observed by kingdaddy, 19 hijackers who simply got lucky. I think defining the 9/11 attacks as a stroke of luck is both inaccurate and irresponsible. One gets lucky at craps or blackjack. One does not, by luck, execute a successful attack with as many “moving parts” as the 9/11. That attack required long-term planning, financial resources, and flawless execution; really it was not one attack, but multiple attacks on multiple targets, coordinated within scant hours of each other; each airplane can be seen as an individual tactical piece of a larger strategic attack. 4 out of 4 of these attacks successfully commandeered their aircraft, and 3 of 4 reached their intended targets. And we’re calling that luck? What are we smoking?

    Luck had nothing to do with their success. They achieved success by planning, rehearsing, and executing a coordinated attack. They were no more lucky than they were crazy; and they may have been many bad things, but cowards they were not. The 9/11 attacks were painstakingly planned and prepared, and executed with enormous chutzpah.

    That doesn’t happen without support, and a great deal of it at that. The terrorists required training, planning support, intelligence about the intended targets and up-to-the-minute information about the security at the airports they departed from.

    We have to assume that at the time, Al Qaida did have a strategic interest in attacking the United States; as a military planner, I’m not willing to chalk 9/11 up to luck on the part of 19 guys acting as an isolated group. That simply isn’t the way successful attacks are planned.

    They may not have had a planned, coordinated wave of terror waiting on the wings; but it is clear that they had the means, and the intent, to do great harm to us at home.

    If Al Qaida has changed its strategic interests since then, I think it appropriate to ask why; but the fact that the 9/11 attack happened is, in my professional military opinion, proof positive that Al Qaida had a strategic interest in attacking the United States at that time. There is simply no way these guys just “got lucky.”

    Homeland security is still a joke, and is not the reason Al Qaida has not staged more attacks on US Soil; so if it’s not something at home, it must be something abroad that caused the group to re-focus, and I think the assumption that they are focusing on short-range targets is probably accurate.

    Now, it may not have been the intended purpose of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I think it is very clear that the U.S. presence in these places has caused Al Qaida’s strategic policy to shift. They may not have been in Iraq before, but they most certainly are now, and that in numbers. I think that on the strategic level, the war in Iraq and, to a lesser degree, Afghanistan, has diverted Al Qaida’s attention away from attacking the U.S. on its own soil and is instead focused on the closer threat of the U.S. in Iraq.

    We will never know what would have happened had we not launched these wars; however, it is not clear to me why a state or a major strategic actor like Al Qaida would have shifted their policy away from mounting large attacks on U.S. soil had there not been a more pressing need in their own back yard. Like states, major strategic players like Al Qaida don’t change policy on a whim; they change policy because they have to, or because it is in their interest to do so. Had the posture of the U.S. stayed the same following the attacks, I beg the question, why would the posture of Al Qaida have changed?

    In my opinion, it would not have. It may not have been the intent of these wars, but one of the effects that has been crystal clear to me from the beginning is that Al Qaida’s policy, and resources, have shifted towards dealing with western influence in the middle east, and shifted away from attack the west on western soil.

    Now, I never thought Al Qaida had the aility to destroy our way of life; but as a strategist I did fear that, if we didn’t find a way to re-direct Al Qaida’s resources, there would be more attacks on American soil, and I hold to that position; all things being equal, Al Qaida would not have changed its policy. They changed their policy in response to our incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and like the wars there or hate them, they are probably the reason why there hasn’t been another attack on American soil - not because we’ve successfully isolated Al Qaida and destroyed them through these wars, but because our incursions forced Al Qaida to shift its strategic intent and deploy its resources in the middle east instead of the U.S.

  5. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    The word “lucky” may seem flippant, but I should think that any complex undertaking requires a bit of luck to pull off.

    Regardless of that, the point is that should we see 9/11 as the forward point of the wedge of a greater terrorist onslaught (which was how it was treated) or should we view at the pinnacle of terroristic achievements that is unlikely to be replicated?

    Part of the answer as to why their haven’t been more attacks may be that the latter interpretation is closer to the truth than the former.

    I am not saying that everything that has been done post-9/11 has been wrong, policywise. The Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan had to be dealt with. And I do think that action disrupted al Qaeda greatly.

    However, we still continue to act as if there is a great wave of terrorism coming, and that is manifestly not true.

    There is a threat, yes, but how one plans for that threat matters, and treating it all like World War III (or IV, depending on who you talk to) is attacking the problem incorrectly, in my opinion.

    Indeed, I am advocating thinking like a strategist, rather than thinking like a panicked and frightened people (which is, after a fashion, the way the Bush administration wants us to think about it).


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