J.D. Salinger and al Qaeda’s “Chinese Democracy”

18 March 2007, 1543 EDT

Writer J.D. Salinger has not published any work since 1965 (“at least under his own name,” writes someone at Wikipedia). Many theorize that the author of the classic book Catcher in the Rye just cannot top that effort — so why try? I’d stop short of calling him a literary “one hit wonder,” but you can find that description on the web.

Rock band Guns N’Roses was most definitely not a one hit wonder, though I never owned any of their recordings. Lead singer Axl Rose has apparently been re-working the album “Chinese Democracy” for years and years and years — since 1992, in fact. The latest announced release date, March 6, 2007, was recently scrapped. The band has basically disintegrated during this long period of inactivity.

The GNR silence may be explained by Rose’s perfectionism, though artists like Salinger and Rose might simply have a “paranoid fear of being critically misinterpreted.”

Incidentally, “Chinese Democracy” will reportedly have a song entitled “Catcher in the Rye.”

By now, you probably wonder why I am mentioning the non-productivity of these previously successful artists on a blog about international politics. Well, hold on, I’m getting there.

It has been five and a half years since al Qaeda’s dramatic 9/11 attacks on the United States. Yet, America remains a “target-rich” environment. The US is highly vulnerable to a wide variety of potential terror strikes — whether you are most worried about suicide bomber attacks in malls, bombs in sports stadiums, paramilitary strikes on chemical plants, or various kinds of symbolic attacks on Wall Street or DC’s national landmarks.

You can almost scare yourself to death thinking about how easy it would be for terrorists inside America to wreak havoc and create a lot of new fear.

Yet, al Qaeda does not attack. Days pass, then weeks, months, and even years. Will a decade pass before their next effort?

What does the inactivity mean?

Bush administration supporters claim that this inactivity proves that US policies are working. You know the line from the National Security Strategy: “our best defense is a good offense.” Skeptics argue that the threat of al Qaeda attacks has simply been overblown.

Here’s the Salinger/Rose comparison: It is becoming trendy for analysts to claim that al Qaeda has not attacked the US because it is only interested in something on a comparable scale to September 11:

radical Islamic jihadists are probably only interested in large attacks (the stated objective of al-Qaeda leaders is for the next attack on the United States to be bigger than 9/11)

That sets a high bar.

They killed nearly 3000 people, yes, and that was a huge attack, but the greater symbolism lies in the targets and the results: a major center of global commerce was struck and the Twin Towers themselves were toppled! Moreover, the headquarters of America’s global military machine was hit in a surprise attack!

I inserted those exclamation points not to glorify al Qaeda’s actions but to illustrate the enormity of their task.

How can al Qaeda possibly top those attacks?

A nuclear attack of some kind immediately comes to mind and that is certainly why the US claims to be so interested in the “axis of evil” states. However, I’m really skeptical that a nation-state is going to make a tremendous effort to produce a bomb in defiance of the rest of the world — and then just hand it over to al Qaeda, even if OBL himself writes a check with ten zeroes.

So what should security analysts make of al Qaeda’s relative silence? And yes, I certainly realize there are caveats. The organization has hit targets all over the world during these years of “inactivity” and al Qaeda itself has morphed into a loose network of terrorists. Still, what about a concerted effort to target the US?

Are American citizens at great risk or not? Should Americans turn down the threat meters? Or not?

Like a bad “Saturday Night Live” sketch, I’m not precisely certian how to end this post, but I hope that it has been somewhat provocative.

Reader comments and co-blogger responses are most welcome.