‘Without a shot being fired, without even a clear sense of who the attacker is, much of the United States could find itself living in post-Katrina New Orleans, but without hope of a rescue anytime soon.” Stewart Baker, the founding policy director at the Department of Homeland Security under Pres. George W. Bush, makes this and other alarming announcements in his new book, Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism. He explains why he’s so worried, what he learned about the ACLU, and more in an interview with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez:
LOPEZ: How did you come up with the title? I mean, I know you’re into hiking, but have you ever tried skating on stilts?
BAKER: I was trying to convey two things. First, the notion that new technology can make us faster and more effective while also raising both the probability and the consequences of failure. Second, I thought it captured the flavor of working at the top of DHS — exhilarating, exhausting, and never more than a minute’s inattention from disaster.
Have I ever skated on stilts? I go hiking every year with my son, except for last year, when I was trying to get the book done while also relaunching my law practice. I’ve done a fair amount of rollerblading, but never on stilts. I’ve left enough skin on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail as it is.
LOPEZ: You write about being at the Pentagon memorial to those who were murdered there on September 11, 2001: “I look for my birth year — 1947. Eleven dead. More than any other year. That seems fitting. By 2001, we baby boomers had shaped the United States to reflect ourselves. We were what the attackers hated. This is our fight.” Do boomers know that? Have they forgotten?
BAKER: That’s a great question. In general, I think boomers, or at least their leaders, have been oblivious to how they’ve changed the world, or how those changes are viewed abroad. Boomers want to get credit for legitimizing sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, or at least two out of three; at the same time, their one great claim to moral authority, the triumph over racism, is tied to an enthusiasm for embracing other cultures and an expectation that they’ll be embraced in return.
In the Islamic world, that expectation seems incoherent. There, you can stand for modernism, women’s rights, sex appeal, and rock music, but that puts you in permanent opposition to traditional Islamic values and their defenders — at the risk of your life. If the attacks of 9/11 were a reaction to the West’s intrusion into the Islamic world, and that’s certainly how I’d view them, then the boomers did a lot to cause the reaction.
In the boomers’ generational narrative, though, the bad guys are defenders of traditional values who don’t like dark-skinned foreigners, while the good guys attack traditional values and defend dark-skinned minorities. So the boomers’ response to the attacks has been to prove that they are the good guys by showing how tolerant of Islamic culture and Middle Eastern minorities they can be.
It makes a kind of sense if your generational myth is the Freedom Riders in Mississippi, but I don’t think it communicates much more than muddle (or perhaps weakness) to al-Qaeda and its sympathizers.