Ten Years On
The observances of the 10th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks largely focused, as they should have, on the victims of those attacks. In showing the capacity of ordinary people to exhibit extraordinary courage, many of these individuals exemplified the best of our country and the best of the human spirit.
Nevertheless, I suspect that one of the reasons that the ceremonies and media coverage focused so heavily on the stories of the victims is that we remain deeply divided about our national response to these attacks. With Bin Laden dead, Al-Qaeda a shadow of its former self, and the U.S. homeland free of any major terrorist attacks over the last decade one might be inclined to see the Global War on Terror as a success.
I would argue, to the contrary, that our victory over Al-Qaeda was a tactical victory but something close to a strategic defeat. Ten years after Pearl Harbor, the United States was the most powerful nation on earth. Working with its allies, the U.S. built durable international institutions that strengthened liberal democracy and laid the groundwork for the long twilight struggle against Communism. Domestically, the expansion of collective bargaining allowed the prosperity of the post-war period to be broadly shared.
The contrast with the present moment is striking.
We are—economically, politically, socially—a weaker nation than we were 10 years ago. There are many reasons for this and some of them have little to do with the War on Terror. There is no question, though, that we have paid an enormous price—perhaps an excessive one—in an effort to eliminate the chance of another mass casualty attack on American soil.
Exhibits A and B, of course, are the actual wars we have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. In both cases, military victory was quickly followed by something perilously close to political defeat at an enormous cost in lives and resources. But there have been more subtle impacts as well. I write this from an airplane, having gone through airport security four times in the past two weeks. Making it harder to travel in and out of the United States has depressed tourism and made us less attractive as a place to do business. The greater scrutiny and lengthy delays associated with visas has made it harder to attract the best and brightest from the around the world to study, live and start businesses here. The conviction that we had no choice but to employ torture and “extraordinary rendition” to protect ourselves did enormous harm to our standing abroad and made it harder for other governments to stand with us.
The irony is that protecting ourselves from terrorist attacks did not require this kind of response. Much of our progress in dismantling Al-Qaeda has come from the kind of dogged “police work” often derided by those who favored a more muscular response: better international collaboration between intelligence agencies and between those agencies and law enforcement; understanding and interrupting the monetary flows that finance terrorist activity; successful infiltration of terrorist networks and, yes, targeted military action against individual terrorist leaders. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have, if anything, complicated this work. As for the burdens imposed on the travelling public, they have been justly criticized as an extremely expensive form of “anti-terrorism theater.”
If anything, our response to the 9-11 attacks handed Al-Qaeda a victory, although one they were admittedly unable to adequately exploit. While Bin Laden’s core motivation in attacking the U.S. was to weaken our support for the Arab governments he opposed, it was also clear that he sought the mantle of being the great opponent to the United States. Our response gave him a stature his tiny organization of fanatics did not deserve. It was as if the President of the United States had agreed to a televised public debate with Lyndon LaRouche. It might have been better if we had taken a page from the Israeli response to the killings at the Munich Olympics and quietly hunted down the killers one by one.
While I am sometimes amused by the fact that the United States has rendered the third ranking position in Al-Qaeda the most dangerous job in the world, the fact remains that we have more important work to do. The dangers facing the United States at the present time are more domestic than foreign: unprecedented levels of long-term unemployment that are destroying both hope and human capital; rising poverty and falling incomes; a slowing pace of technological innovation; schools and colleges that are failing to prepare the workers and citizens of the future; public sector budgets groaning under the weight of an aging population; and an inadequate policy response to the very real threat of climate change.
These are the real threats that we face right now. If we do not confront them successfully, it will matter little ten years hence that we put a bullet in the head of a madman who will eventually lie forgotten in the garbage heap of history.