Thank God for Hans Blix. Whenever we become lax and forgetful about how the world changed on Sept. 11, former chief inspector Blix is there to make the case for mindless complacency. In a recent speech in Vienna he warned that one should be wary of the claim that "the risk that reckless groups and governments might acquire weapons of mass destruction is the greatest problem facing our world today." Why? Because "to hundreds of millions of people around the world, the big existential issue is hunger, and also that wherever you live on this planet, the risk of global warming and other environmental threats are existential."
Here we are at the crux of a debate over the United States' aggressive interventionism of the past few years. Is Islamic radicalism in potential alliance with terrorist states that possess such weapons a threat to the very existence (hence: "existential") of the United States and of civilization itself?
On Sept. 12, 2001, and for many months after, that proposition was so self-evident that it commanded near unanimous support. With time -- three years in which, contrary to every expectation and prediction, the second shoe never dropped -- that consensus has evaporated.
The new idea, expressed by Blix representing the decadent European left, and recently amplified by Michael Moore representing the paranoid American left, is that this existential threat is vastly overblown. Indeed, deliberately overblown by a corrupt/clueless (take your pick) President Bush to justify American aggression for reasons of . . . and here is where the left gets a little fuzzy, not quite being able to decide whether American aggression is intended simply to enrich multinational corporations -- or maybe just Halliburton alone -- with fat war contracts, distract from alleged failure in Afghanistan, satisfy some primal masculine urge or boost poll ratings.
We have come a long way in three years. The idea that Sept. 11 was a historic turning point, a wake-up call to a war declared by our enemies but ignored by us, has begun to fade. The week after the attacks, the late-night comedy shows went dark -- and upon returning to the air they were almost apologetic about telling jokes, any jokes, ever again. Today, Moore produces a full-length film parody of Sept. 11 and its aftermath that is not just highly celebrated but commands a huge popular audience. To be sure, Moore's version is not quite as crazed as the French bestseller claiming that the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center were remotely controlled by the CIA at the behest of the president. Moore merely implies some sinister plot, citing connections between the Bush and bin Laden families. It's a long way from two years ago, when Rep. Cynthia McKinney was run out of Congress for suggesting that Bush had foreknowledge. (She is today in a tight race, with a very good chance of regaining her seat.)
Unlike the French book or the Moore movie, Blix is not deranged. He is merely in denial, discounting the uniqueness of the WMD-terrorism issue by comparing it to global warming and hunger. Yes, hunger is an existential issue to the people suffering it. As are car accidents, heart disease and earthquakes. But they hardly threaten to destroy civilization. Hunger is a scourge that has always been with us and that has not been a threat to humanity's existence for at least 1,000 years. Global warming might one day be, but not for decades, or even centuries, and with a gradualness that will leave years for countermeasures.
There is no gradualness and there are no countermeasures to a dozen nuclear warheads detonating simultaneously in U.S. cities. Think of what just two envelopes of anthrax did to paralyze the capital of the world's greatest superpower. A serious, coordinated attack on the United States using weapons of mass destruction could so shatter America as a functioning, advanced society that it would take generations to rebuild.
What is so dismaying is that such an obvious truth needs repeating. The passage of time, the propaganda of the anti-American left and the setbacks in Iraq have changed nothing of that truth. This is the first time in history that the knowledge of how to make society-destroying weapons has been democratized. Today small radical groups allied with small radical states can do the kind of damage to the world that in the past only a great, strategically located and industrialized power such as Germany or Japan could do.
It is a new world and exceedingly dangerous. Everything is at stake. We are now deeply engaged in a breast-beating exercise for not having connected the dots before Sept. 11. And yet here we are three years after Sept. 11, with the dots already connected, and we are under a powerful urge to ignore them completely.