A Bigger Bang

The odd obsession with topping 9/11


The Holland Tunnel plot. It is official now; there was a press conference and everything. Eight Muslim men, all currently overseas, are accused of planning to use explosives to blow a hole in the tunnel. The intention was to flood Manhattan.

Taking the government's claims about the plot at face value—a tall order coming on the heels of the arrest of the Miami Seven terror plotters, whose chief threat seems to have been to an FBI informant's expense account—the Holland plot still affords a glimpse at the mindset of those who would violently strike America.

First, an observation on the timing. On the first anniversary of the London subway bombings, New York and FBI officials happen to announce that the Lebanese government has someone in custody who wanted to blow up NYC trains and tunnels. Wait, make that the Lebanese have had Assem Hammoud in custody since April. Meanwhile, New York City anti-terror funding has been cut and the news breaks that the CIA unit charged with finding Osama bin Laden has been disbanded. We report, you decide.

Still, there seems to have been real chatter among some extremist elements about using bomb-packed cars to flood New York City. This tells us it is not enough for an attack to generate a body count, the attack must both be symbolic on a grand scale and do harm to the U.S. economic infrastructure.

"They're hell-bent on destroying the economy in the U.S.," an unnamed U.S. counterterrorism source told The New York Daily News. Of course, this drive dates back to the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. It is a constant goal.

It is also a fool's errand. If news reports are accurate and the plotters were in some way inspired by the devastation brought to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, they somehow missed the big picture. As bad as Katrina was it did not deal anything like a mortal wound to the U.S. economy. In fact, both 9/11 and Katrina occasioned only temporary stutters by the great American affluence engine. Cruise ships are returning to the Big Easy. Seventy-two virgins? Check with your travel agent.

Yet the aspiring infrastructure terrorist must not see this. He must see every blow against the American economy as drawing down America's fixed store of wealth. This suggests some odd mercantilist, maybe neo-Marxist dependency theory view of national wealth and power. Wealth is not created, it is merely moved around.

As a result, the attack on economic infrastructure is not primarily intended to sow terror in the populace, but instead is supposed to disrupt and bleed out the flow of wealth to America. In fact, bin Laden himself has repeatedly urged his followers to find ways to "bleed" the U.S. financially. Backing up, it is clear that setting aside the mode and method of the tunnel attack, these jihadists were looking to mount a strategic attack on the U.S., not just terrorize. Why? Why try to do the harder thing, assuming murder and general mayhem do not bother you?

Well, simple megalomania may play a part. Never discount madness as a motive in all things great and small. Yet there might be something more. The obsession with making a big, crippling strike on the U.S. economy must reflect the notion that it is the only way to succeed. After all, attacks on U.S. military power, as it is currently constituted, are largely pointless. As exposed as they are in a largely hostile land, U.S. forces in Iraq may take casualties, but they are in no danger in losing military control of a country in the heart of the Middle East.

An attack on America's fat wallet, by comparison, must look like a much better bet.