Sunday, January 10, 2010

Orgasmic Outrage

I recently saw a YouTube link by an Italian commentator named Marco Paolini. For all I know, Paolini and I are political polar opposites, but he makes an interesting and colorful observation about the Italian body politic:

For us Italians, indignation lasts about as long as an orgasm. And then you get sleepy.
Paolini was lamenting how initial outrage over an injustice or disaster is usually followed by forgetfulness and indifference. He was referring specifically to an incident that occurred thirty years ago but is still an unsolved mystery: On June 27, 1980, Flight 870 en route from Bologna to Palermo suddenly disappeared from radar screens and was later found to have crashed into the deep waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea near the island of Ustica, killing all 81 people on board.

The event is known in Italy as “la Strage di Ustica” (the Ustica Massacre), because many believe the plane was shot down by a missile during military exercises in the area. One theory specifically alleges that the plane was in the wrong place at the wrong time, having been caught in a dog fight between NATO jets and a Libyan MiG 23 that was later found crashed in the mountains of Calabria. Others believe that a bomb was placed on board, either by terrorists, or perhaps by some Mafiosi wanting to settle a score with a passenger. Still others believe the initial findings of the official investigation, that it was simply a matter of a very old, corroding airplane that had started to break apart in flight and subsequently disintegrated subsequent to depressurization.

The dearth of information surrounding the event has spawned many conspiracy theories. For example, some radar and other air traffic control records appear to be missing or incomplete. The black box was not recovered until years later, when the entirety of the plane was finally recovered under the 3700 meter deep waters by a French engineering firm. Both the Italian and U.S. militaries contended that there had been no military exercises or operations in the area, but unanswered questions remained. In the meantime, many of the people who may have been in a position to know key facts have died, some under suspicious circumstances and timing.

In 1989, some members of the Italian Air Force were indicted for “high treason”, having allegedly obstructed the official investigation, which at this point was concluding that the plane had been downed by a missile strike. The indictments provoked the outrage and indignation that Paolini was referring to. However, everyone so indicted has since been acquitted, and the fact remains that we still do not know exactly what happened. The Italian government reopened the investigation in 2008.

I think the Italians could be forgiven that their indignation over Ustica has waned. After all, we still don’t know exactly what happened. But I cannot forgive or understand similar reactions by Americans to disasters where we know precisely what happened, and even after our initial indignation caused us to learn and implement some valuable lessons. Unlike flight 870 on June 27, 1980, we know precisely what happened on September 11, 2001, when 19 hijackers boarded four airliners and subsequently crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center North Tower, United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower and American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Had it not been for the courage and quick thinking of some of the passengers on United Flight 93, the terrorists would have crashed it into the White House or the Capitol Building, but ended up crash-landing into a field in Pennsylvania. In addition to the 19 hijackers, 2973 perished as a result of these attacks.

The subsequent investigations were swift and precise, and they discovered exactly what we needed to know, albeit too late. It took a direct attack on our own shores to wake us up to what was patently obvious. We had adversaries who were literally at war with us, and we had been pathetically and ineffectively treating terrorism as a law enforcement problem. These were not people who needed to be read their Miranda rights and brought into a court of law. We were outraged to learn that only a few years earlier the government of Sudan had offered to turn Osama bin Laden over to the United States but we declined because we did not think we had enough evidence to convict him in a court of law. We also learned that there were pathetic gaps in our ability to collect and analyze intelligence, and much of that had unfortunately been by design, as there were laws and long-standing policies in place that kept our intelligence and law enforcement agencies from talking to each other.

Our indignation and outrage was not without effect. Most if not all of the faulty thinking, mindset and policy was immediately corrected. Instead of waiting for terrorists to strike us, we declared war against them and against nations that were harboring or protecting them. We passed laws and implemented policies that not only allowed but also mandated that intelligence and law enforcement agencies share information. We did not concern ourselves with the constitutional rights of enemy combatants (they have none), but rather concentrated on extracting information from them in order to protect our nation from being attacked again.

The good news is that for the next eight years we were not attacked again, though not for lack of trying on the part of the terrorists. Time and time again, we were able to thwart terrorist attacks thanks to information received, analyzed and shared by our military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies. It got to a point where life returned to normal in the USA, despite the fact that we had troops fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and therein lay the bad news.

After our initial orgasm of outrage, we started to get sleepy. We reverted to a mindset of politics as usual, and opposition parties started to not only question but even criminalize the very policies and tactics that have been so effective in fighting this war on terrorism.

Oh, excuse me! We must no longer call it a war or even refer to it as terrorism. I think “man-made disaster” is now the term du jour. We have again been lulled to the sleep of a pre-9/11 mentality. Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his cohorts are going to get a jury trial in New York City. Even the disastrous result of the first major intelligence failure—when Nidal Malik Hasan went on a shooting rampage, yelling “"Allahu Akbar” as he killed 13 people and wounded 30 others at Fort Hood Texas—did not wake us up from our stupor. Instead, we allowed the Obama Administration and a compliant media to convince us that this was not an act of terrorism but simply a matter of someone going postal (his previous contacts with Al Qaeda and other tell-tale intelligence and warning signs notwithstanding).

Neither am I optimistic that we have been awakened by the next intelligence failure either, when we failed to act on multiple warning signs and information that should have kept Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from being issued a visa and boarding Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with explosives in his underwear. Disaster was averted thanks to some courageous passengers, as well as Mr. Abdulmutallab’s wardrobe malfunction. But instead of being re-awakened to a post 9/11 mentality, we read Mr. Abdulmutallab his rights and plan to arraign him in federal court, with all the constitutional protections he so richly does not deserve.

Back to Mr.Paolini’s somewhat vulgar but otherwise accurate metaphor: indignation lasts about as long as an orgasm. And then you get sleepy. Will we ever wake up?

1 comment:

JD Curtis said...

I think Paolini is right, unfortunately. We're spoiled as people and not much, even tragedy, holds our attention for very long