Trial Runs Always Look Incompetent
January 6 and our continuing failure of imagination.
1. 2/26 and 1/6
Part of the frustration this week is listening to people argue that the January 6 attack on the presidential electoral vote count was NBD. Mona Charen has an excellent roundup of such statements here. It’s depressing.
But is it surprising?
Maybe it shouldn’t be. Because we often suffer from failures of imagination. Let me tell you a story.
On February 26, 1993 Ramzi Yousef and Eyad Ismoil parked a rental van in the public garage beneath the World Trade Center. The van was filled with explosives. Yousef lit the fuse and at 12:17 p.m. the bomb exploded.
Yousef’s plan had been to bring down the North Tower and have it crash into the South Tower.
The plan was almost comically stupid: 1,300 lbs. of fertilizer-based explosives was not going to bring down that tower. And even if it could have brought down the building, this was not like felling a tree, where Yousef could precisely angle how one tower fell in order hit the other tower.
Yousef was the idiot ringleader and the cast of characters around him were like something out of a bad movie.
There was a blind fake “sheikh” named Omar Abdel-Rahman.
There was Yousef’s right-hand man, Mohammed Salameh, a dude with a unibrow who failed his driver’s test in America four times and kept getting into car accidents while helping Yousef plan the attack. Salameh drove a 1978 Chevy Nova—which is itself a ludicrous detail—and in one of his accidents Yousef, who was riding shotgun, was hurt badly enough that he was hospitalized.
But here’s the best part: Yousef wound up ordering the chemicals for his WTC bomb over the phone from his hospital room.
Or maybe the best part is that Yousef thought that 250,000 people worked in the Twin Towers. (The real number was about 50,000.)
Or maybe the best part is that just before the bombing, Yousef dropped a letter into the mail to the New York Times claiming responsibility for the attacks that he thought would have killed 250,000 people by knocking one tower into another like dominoes.
Or maybe the best part is that in this letter, Yousef claimed to belong to the “Liberation Army, Fifth Battalion.” Which is, you know, not actually a thing that exists.
In the end, Yousef’s bomb blew a large hole through some concrete. Six people were killed. The World Trade Center did not fall.1
What a bunch of clowns! How could anyone have taken Yousef and his bumbling co-conspirators seriously? They never could have brought down the towers!
That was the general tenor of the response. A handful of arrests were made. The towers were closed for a couple months to repair the damage and do some renovations.
But no larger actions were taken. And the people who viewed this bumbling attempt as part of a larger emerging pattern of Islamist terrorism were, for the most part, dismissed as worrywarts. It was a criminal matter and it was taken care and it was time to move on. In fact, I’d bet a watch that the vast majority of Americans don’t even remember February 26, 1993.
Except that eight years later a different group of terrorists with the same goals, but who were much better organized, managed to bring down both buildings with nothing more than a couple credit cards and some boxcutters.
There were signs, in 1993, that Yousef’s attempt to destroy the WTC was more serious than it looked. He’d trained at a terrorist camp in Pakistan. And his uncle was a fellow named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was very much not a joke.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—KSM—was a high-level al Qaeda operative. He provided Yousef with some guidance for his bombing plan, as well as some kickstarter money for the operation.
KSM learned from Yousef’s failure and applied those lessons to his master plan for the 9/11 attacks.
After the 1993 attack Yousef—who would not be arrested until years later—made his way to the Philippines, where he and KSM worked together on an operation to detonate bombs simultaneously on several airliners. This plan, Operation Bojinka, was discovered in 1995 before it could be launched.
But KSM learned a lot about airline security while working on Bojinka. He used this knowledge to formulate a plan to hijack airliners and use the planes themselves as bombs. He presented this plan to the al Qaeda high command and, after some bureaucratic back-and-forth, KSM was given the go-ahead sometime in late 1998 or early 1999.
You know what happened next.
The point here is that there was a straight line from February 26, 1993 to September 11, 2001. Same target. Same political goals. Same ideology. Even some overlapping personnel.
One of those attacks was so amateurish and ridiculous that it became a punchline. The other changed American life and institutions for a generation.
To look at January 6, 2021 and insist that nothing serious is at stake, that the people involved were too ridiculous, too stupid, too incompetent to ever do any real damage is either a failure of imagination or an attempt to render aid and comfort to democracy’s enemies.
2. How the Other Side Lives
This Andrew Beaujon piece on the Washington, D.C. cell block where arrested 1/6 offenders are housed is absolutely amazing:
The DC Jail is even more segregated than the city it serves. Just 3 percent of the inmates, on average, are white; 87 percent are Black. What happens inside when you lock up dozens of overwhelmingly white men arrested as part of a radical-right insurrection? The jail’s overseers decided they didn’t want to find out. The Sixers—as they’re known to their faithful—were confined to a medium-security annex, away from other prisoners. The brass call the block C2B, or Charlie Two Bravo. Its 40 or so residents call it the Patriots’ Pod.
“We work as a team in here,” says Brandon Fellows, a 27-year-old Sixer from central New York. “We pray together, we sing together.”
Fellows is the guy who climbed through a broken Capitol window and admitted to taking a hit off a doobie in Senator Jeff Merkeley’s office. He got to the pod in August. Right around Thanksgiving, I began trading calls with him and another inmate, Nathan DeGrave, to hear how life on the wing was going. “It’s more so a democracy than, say, you know, a monarch,” says DeGrave, a 32-year-old Las Vegas resident accused of encouraging people to “take everything” after he forced his way past officers into the Senate chamber. (Both Fellows and DeGrave have pleaded not guilty.) “We kind of all listen to each other and get input from each other. So I would have to say that there’s no specific or definite leaders in this pod.”
There may be no king mackerel in the fishbowl, but facets of life inside it sound eerily familiar to the alternate universe that ultra-right-wingers occupied on the outside.
Most of a Sixer’s existence goes down in isolation—the cells on Charlie Two Bravo are singles. Each day, they get a five-and-a-half-hour window of “rec,” or time outside the cell. One day it’s from 9 am to 2:30 pm, then they wait 25 and a half hours for the next day’s rec, starting at 4. Sixers on that rotation get to take part in a cherished ritual: singing the national anthem in unison at 9 pm. When they get to the lyric “That our flag was,” they shout the last two words, “STILL THERE!”
Basketball is big—they play on indoor courts now that winter’s here—as is venting about being political prisoners in a totally un-American American gulag (their words). They discuss their cases, interesting facts they’ve discovered in law books (“At times it sounds like a law firm in here,” DeGrave says), and the sentences other defendants have received. They know they’re celebrities among a certain set of folks on the outside: Most have crowd-funding accounts set up to help them buy stuff from the commissary or to pay legal bills. DeGrave, whose Patriot’s Pod nickname is Nate Dogg and whose Facebook bio identified him as a “Life & Success Hacker,” has amassed more than $111,537 in his account.
“We have, like, fans,” says Fellows. “People all around the country send us mail, and they’ve been even sending in food donations.”
You have to read the whole thing. It is wild.
3. Happy Talk
So you come to Regular Car Reviews for the jokes, but you stay for the deep insights about America.
The part of this review which really gets me starts at 3:24 where Mr. Regular talks about how GM took the 2020 Camaro SS and tried to make it sound like the old Camaro.
If you’re a Gen Xer, you remember the Camaro sound. That crackling and burbling was the result of a design limitation: The old Camaros were too cammed up and fuel timing wasn’t sophisticated enough. So you got oxygen combusting during deceleration, which gave the Camaro its distinctive sound.
Fast-forward to 2020 and we have the miracle of computers. The computers can optimize anything. So GM was able to make a Camaro that didn’t sound crackle and burble.
And it turned out that Camaro buyers hated this quiet, normal-sounding car.
So GM had to go in and cobble together a technical fix to make the car sound like it was behaving inefficiently.
That’s right. Nostalgia is such a powerful drug in America that engineers had to find a way to pretend to unfix a flaw in order to sell this car.
After publication a reader reminded me that the best part is that following the attack, Mohammed Salameh went back to the rental company from which he’d procured the van which was blown up in the attack and tried to get his $400 security deposit back.
No, wait. I’m sorry. The absolute best part is that Salameh went back to the Ryder office trying to get his deposit back three times!
And on the third try, the police were waiting for him.