EIGHTEEN GUYS WHO SHOOK THE WORLD By Ted Rall

America Unmasked as a Paper Tiger

NEW YORK – "Power is an illusion," columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote during Watergate. At no time in our lives has that truism been more evident.

The demise of the Soviet Union, we know as surely as we can know anything nowadays, left us Americans in charge of the planet. What we never considered was how little it took to bring down our rival superpower: the CIA dumping dollars on the floors of Moscow lavatories to destabilize the ruble. A nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl.

Afghanistan.

It happened to them. Now it's happening to us.

Integral to the shaking fists and the flag-waving hysteria and the funerals – thousands and thousands more of those to come, by the way – is a rage born of impotence. Conservatives applaud and liberals deplore our expensive governmental monitoring systems – what would we have argued about had we known that neither the CIA nor the NSA knew what was going to go down Sept. 11? For what does it profit a country to starve its schools if its fattened Pentagon can't even protect its own headquarters from a terrorist attack?

The United States has finally been unmasked as the greatest Potemkin ever conceived – "great magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms," in Breslin's words. Or to paraphrase Edward G. Robinson's classic diss of Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity": We thought we were smart, but we were wrong. We're just a little bigger.

Air-traffic controllers realized fairly quickly that those four jets had been hijacked. American Flight 11, out of Boston, took 46 minutes to hit Tower One of the World Trade Center. United Flight 175 struck Tower Two 65 minutes after leaving Boston.

Most damning, American Flight 77 was aloft a total of 88 minutes – nearly an hour and a half – making it from Washington/Dulles to southern Ohio en route to Los Angeles before turning around. Math: The flight did a 180-degree turn at least 44 minutes away from the Pentagon. Why weren't our F-16s on top of that plane within 10 minutes? Why wasn't it shot down during the next 34 minutes after that? The answer, sheepishly admitted and buried deep amid the assorted tales of horror, was that there is no policy for forcing down a civilian airliner.

Unless, of course, there was. The Air Force denies shooting down United Flight 93, which crashed and burned in Shanksville, Pa., the government's silence certifying called-in media stories of heroic passengers rebelling against their captors. Those accounts, however, are cast into doubt by the government's refusal to release the plane's voice cockpit recorder tapes to the public. It's a safe bet, after all, that a bold struggle for control would at least make it out in transcript form. So it's possible that Bush or other officials made a terrible, yet courageous, decision to act; if so, the need to keep it secret provides ample testimony to the aftermath of last year's election-that-never-was: If Bush is the perfect president for this time, he's the empty-headed embodiment of our national cluelessness.

America's embarrassment of embarrassments continues apace. CIA superspooks admit that their posse of white Mormons from Utah never learned Pashto or Tajik, Afghanistan's two principal languages. The loss of four planes and a few days of airport closures decimate the biggest airline industry in the world, resonating through the economy in the form of the biggest stock-market crash ever. Half a dozen buildings accounting for less than 1 percent of New York City's office space vanish; the national economy plunges decidedly into recession and beyond.

What would we do if we really were at war? How can the richest superpower in the history of mankind have been brought so low by 18 guys?

The United States, it turns out, entered the 21st century atop a crumbling house of cards. When the Soviet Union went away, we lost the ideological and economic competition that had kept us sharp after World War II. We became complacent, smug and arrogant. History, Francis Fukuyama told us in 1993, had ended. Global free-market capitalism, epitomized and led by U.S. corporations, represented the pinnacle of achievement of historical evolution.

A power vacuum opened in Central Asia. Afghanistan disintegrated into civil war, anarchy and religious madness. Surrounding republics – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan – were sucked into a vortex of instability and anti-Western sentiment fueled by clumsy U.S. attempts to suck all the oil out of the region without paying off any of the locals. This, and America's blank check to Israel, inspired tens of thousands of militant Muslims to their facile conclusion: Sometimes the bull in the china shop won't leave voluntarily. That's when you kill it.

Osama and his jihad boys sized us up fairly well. Behind the high-tech metal detectors in our airports were underpaid incompetents. Manning our tactical defenses were dimwitted dolts devoid of imagination. Bolstering our outsized economy was a mountain of debt and an easily spooked securities market. And behind the boast that the World Trade Center could withstand a collision with a jumbo jet was the horrible, awful truth: No amount of bluster can cancel out basic physics. As the cliche goes, we believed our own hype and now we're paying the price.

Our close-to-the-bone brand of capitalism turned out to be our economic Achilles' heel. Corporations that fill metal tubes with highly combustible fuel and upper-middle-class citizens and propel them eight miles over the surface of the Earth at high speeds ought to be prepared for an occasional mishap, but they're not – and neither are insurers who are, after all, in the business of risk appraisal. A week of reduced productivity has ruined crops (no crop dusters during the flight ban) and trashed the economies of states dependent on tourism.

This, since George W. Bush and his tax-cutting maniacs have forgotten, is why governments and companies both need savings and surpluses. "It's my money," Republicans like to say, "and I can use it better than the government can." Worst of all, decades of increasing disparity of wealth have made it impossible for ordinary people to help out the only way they really could, by spending discretionary income. Now that we've let them steal all of our money, where are all the jobs rich people are supposed to create? This is the way empires end, with a bang and a whine.

(Ted Rall, a syndicated cartoonist for Universal Press Syndicate, is author of the new books "2024" and "Search and Destroy.")

This article was sent to FAEM and it is assumed that it was from Harold Covington.