There’s a concept in psychoanalysis called “parataxic distortion” that describes how traumatic experiences can distort perceptions of subsequent events. The victim is so upset by the trauma that later events are interpreted as a further manifestation of the initial shock, even though they may be unconnected.
Historian Walter Laqueur has suggested that the concept of parataxic distortion might have relevance beyond psychotherapy, in helping to understand how nations respond to unsettling events. I began to suspect he was right two years ago, when I heard a very senior military officer remark in a Pentagon briefing that the threat posed by global terrorism was as serious as that posed by communism a generation earlier. I asked him how he could equate 10,000 nuclear warheads aimed at America with a handful of nuts scattered across Arabia, and his response (more or less) was that I just didn’t get it.
Maybe I don’t. Then again, maybe he and other decisionmakers who bear some responsibility for dropping the ball on 9-11 are over-compensating for their mistake by exaggerating the danger posed by the likes of Osama and Zarqawi. What’s worse, maybe they are connecting the dots of future threats so poorly that the Pentagon’s entire transformation agenda is an exercise in parataxic distortion rather than sound analysis. Let’s consider three reasons why that might be so.
First of all, there haven’t been any follow-on attacks on the American homeland in nearly four years. When you consider how porous U.S. borders are, and how many vulnerable targets there are within easy reach of anyone with a few bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, doesn’t this suggest that Al Qaeda is a pretty weak operation? Proponents of the sky-is-falling theory of global terrorism attribute the lack of attacks to a patient enemy, effective counter-terrorism, and the diversion of terrorist attention to Iraq. That’s all plausible, but it wouldn’t take much to cause widespread destruction in America, and yet no one has done it even as Osama’s lieutenants are being picked off one by one.
Second, the challenge posed by insurgents in Iraq — some of whom call themselves “Al Qaeda in Iraq” — isn’t really anything new. Irregular forces ran America out of Vietnam in the 1970’s, Lebanon in the 1980’s, and Somalia in the 1990’s. The only thing really noteworthy about our adversaries in Iraq is how many of their own compatriots they manage to blow up while claiming a modest number of American casualties. U.S. Army commanders on the scene say this is more indicative of desperation than tactical brilliance, and they’re probably right.
Third, recent history doesn’t indicate the really big threats originate with irregular, stateless forces like Al Qaeda. Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower describes in detail the danger that “transnational” anarchists posed to western governments on the eve of the 20th Century. But the threats that dominated U.S. security concerns in the new century — imperialism, fascism, communism — all were state-based. That’s a lesson Pentagon policymakers ought to consider as they review the top-secret intelligence about China underpinning the “Major Combat Operation II” scenario in the current quadrennial defense review. The trends described in that assessment are likely to be of much greater concern to military planners a decade from now than whatever’s left of “Al Qaeda in Iraq.”
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