Tomorrow, May 1, marks two years since we got Osama bin Laden. The night when a team of Navy SEALs descended on a fortress-like residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and fatally shot the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
On the occasion of this happy anniversary, coupled with our rather unhappy present dealings with a would-be terrorist who recently wreaked havoc on the Boston Marathon, let us reflect upon the state of America’s enemies in today’s world and the manner in which we react to them. It may well serve to lift our spirits.
One of the so-called “lessons of 9/11,” nearly a dozen years since that great national wound was inflicted, is that America overreacted in the aftermath. While this overreaction took many forms—waging a nine-year war in Iraq arguably was one—perhaps the most essential is also the easiest for us to self-correct.
That is: Our tendency to overestimate our enemies.
Let us review the record.
Exactly a year before the SEALs sent bin Laden to his watery grave, a gentleman named Faisal Shahzad attempted to blow up Manhattan’s Times Square, but his plan was foiled when, as Bill Maher quipped, “he locked himself out of his car bomb.”
A few months earlier, on Christmas Day aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate explosives hidden in his undergarments, managing only to set fire to himself before being tackled by fellow passengers and taken into custody.
Then of course there was the original post-9/11 would-be airline bomber, Richard Reid, who failed to detonate explosives stuffed in his shoe because the fuse was too damp to ignite.
These are mere anecdotes—not a statistically significant representative sample—but we are nonetheless entitled to observe a common denominator: These men were not geniuses. In fact, we might go so far as to call them idiots. Idiots with weapons of mass destruction, but idiots all the same.
In this respect, 9/11 was the exception rather than the rule—an attack that was well-financed, meticulously planned and executed with a 75 percent rate of success (a group of extraordinarily brave civilians in the skies above Pennsylvania prevented it from being a clean sweep).
In the Boston case, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev did, of course, succeed in detonating a pair of homemade bombs and inflicting extreme suffering on scores of innocent people.
By the same token, their actions following the Marathon attack suggest a pair of amateurs essentially making things up as they go along, and doing so with extreme sloppiness. Their supposed “plot” to blow up Times Square was apparently conceived on the spot and then abandoned when they realized there wasn’t enough gas in their Honda Civic to reach New York. Although we cannot yet be certain, it is not terribly likely that Dzhokhar running over Tamerlan with the getaway car and later hiding in a boat bleeding half to death were part of the plan, either—that is, if a plan existed at all.
These are what America’s enemies look like today. Yes, they are dangerous, and yes, they mean us harm. But they are not supervillians, and we have no cause to flatter them by treating them as if they are.
Over the weekend I attended a screening of a documentary called Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy, which includes an interview with Mel Brooks, who reflects that the impetus for his 1968 film (and 2001 musical adaptation) The Producers was the question, “How do you get even with Adolph Hitler?” The answer, as far as Brooks was concerned, was by mocking him—by turning this most evil of human specimens into a buffoon, an object of ridicule rather than fear.
That is what our attitude toward today’s evildoers ought to be, if only for the maintenance of our own sanity.
Don’t forget: The primary purpose of terrorism (insomuch as people such as the Tsarnaevs could be called terrorists) is to instill fear—to make you uneasy about walking out the front door every morning.
That is why the right and proper response is simply to be not afraid. To not let them get to you. To laugh in their faces. To regard them as the pathetic losers that they are.
This will not, by itself, prevent future acts of violence, and due diligence is always required in the free and open society that we so proudly inhabit.
But it will help to restore our sense of perspective about good and evil in the world around us. Contrary to the claims of another Mel Brooks bad guy, good will always triumph in the end, because evil is dumb.