‘Twilight Wars’: Reaction to Philip Zelikow’s lecture

By Prerana Pakhrin ’13

Contributing to Dickinson College’s Clarke Forum theme of the year – ‘Security Challanges of the 21st Century’ – Professor Philip Zelikow, White Burkett Miller Professor of History and the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies in University of Virginia, gave a lecture called ‘The Twilight War‘ at Dickinson College on September 13, 2011. Professor Zelikow, by not specifically defining what the ‘Twilight War’ referred to, compromised the structure and flow of his lecture in that he digressed from the topic and focused more on other areas such as policies and the law.

In 2004, the 9/11 Commission in which Professor Zelikow served as the executive director published the ‘Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States‘.  ‘Twilight War’ is the afterword to this report that Professor Zelikow wrote on the occasion to mark the tenth anniversary of the fateful 9/11 attack.

Professor Zelikow while lauding the U.S. government’s counter-terrorism measures post-9/11  approach, criticizes the implementation of it. He discusses that before 9/11, the government did not imagine something like the 9/11 attack to occur even right up till the morning of. The “options” paper did not even have it. However, now with heightened alertness and the widespread media, he argues that “any attack will be a public sensation”: that is the “Paradox of Prevention” (Zelikow). The public image of the “enemy” is so dramatized and that way the public is according more power to these terrorist groups. However, he also compared Bin Laden to Hitler and Stalin and claimed that the extent of the threat of Bin Laden does not match up to that of Hitler and Stalin. Hitler and Stalin were operating through their countries but by operating through a terrorist group – the Al Quaeda – Bin Laden has more freedom and less international relations to keep up and therefore is more of a threat than Hitler and Stalin were.

Professor Zelikow, in his article in Prospect magazine, reiterated what he said in his lecture: “People will try to make sense of events in ways that fit their prior understanding of how the world works. The duty of government is to organise the best possible contribution of factual understanding to the inevitable river of information and argument, so that this river might leave behind a healthier silt of beliefs. A thorough self-assessment is also necessary if governments want to understand and mend any of their own failings.” This goes along with his “Process of Adjustment” argument that after 9/11 people need to be brought back to “normal” conditions. I agree with him that an “honest self-evaluation” (Zelikow) is necessary if the government is to move forward. This is also the way to enhance the implementation of counter-terrorism.

At the beginning of the lecture, Clarke Forum arranged to have two speakers – Dickinson students from New York – to talk about their experience with 9/11 as New Yorkers. The line, “People will try to make sense of events in ways that fit their prior understanding of how the world works” by Professor Zelikow, to me, became more significant while thinking in terms of these student’s experiences.

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