After the Quake: Will Japan Lose Its Head Like the U.S. Did After 9/11?

By Parker Donham

Within hours of the September 11 attacks, it became commonplace to say the event had "changed everything." In retrospect, it would have been good to push back against that notion before it became an entrenched excuse for pernicious changes in the United States.

The vastly greater compound disaster now convulsing Japan lacks the dastardly element of human agency that made 9/11 so reprehensible, but in magnitude of destruction, death toll, and potential for permanent damage, it dwarfs the September 11 attacks. What's happening is not merely awful, but Biblical in scope. In yesterday's Times, Norimitsu Onishi wondered how it will change Japan:

Will it... be a final marker of an irreversible decline? Or will it be an opportunity to draw on the resilience of a people repeatedly tested by calamity to reshape Japan -- in the mold of either the left or the right? This disaster, like the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and the 1995 Kobe earthquake, could well signal a new era.

I'm no Japan hand, but like all Canadians, proximity makes me something of an expert on the United States. (As Pierre Trudeau memorably told Washington's National Press Club in 1969, "Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.") From this vantage point, America's response to the atrocities it suffered on September 11 has been a dismaying combination of self-indulgence, official bullying, and evisceration of the freedoms that make the US a beacon for the world.

If Osama Bin Laden had a checklist of dumb things he hoped the U.S. would do in response his attack, the boxes have all been ticked. From the trivial (the seventh inning stretch song switch) and the merely obnoxious (the prison guard approach to airport security ably chronicled by our sponsor) to the reckless (three foreign wars launched on borrowed money without considering what comes next.) and the totalitarian (Abu Ghraib, Maher Arar,* Omar Khadr,* and now, Bradley Manning), America has done itself far greater damage than  Al-Qaeda could have dared hope.

Last week the president who rode to office on a wave of audacious hope not seen since 1960 shrugged his unconcern about military mistreatment of a U.S. citizen not yet convicted of any crime. The Pentagon assured him it's all good, and that made the abuse OK. Jack Balkin plumbed the significance:

Obama has played the same role with respect to the National Surveillance State that Eisenhower played with respect to the New Deal and the administrative state, and Nixon played with respect to the Great Society and the welfare state. Each President established a bi-partisan consensus and gave bi-partisan legitimation to certain features of national state building.

After the Obama presidency, opponents of a vigorous national surveillance state will be outliers in American politics; they will have no home in either major political party. Their views will be, to use one of my favorite theoretical terms, "off the wall."

In the November, 2007, issue of The Atlantic, the late David Foster Wallace proposed a 9/ll thought experiment:

What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, "sacrifices on the altar of freedom"?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life--sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin's time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice--either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

I hope Japan's people continue to display stoicism and resilience in the face of the trauma that confronts them. I hope Americans, blessed as they are with legendary attachment to democratic traditions, take note, and prove Balkin wrong by recovering their bearings.

* Canada is not blameless in the cases of Canadian citizens Arar and Khadr. Canada gave Arar CDN$10.5 million and a formal apology after an inquiry commission found the Royal Canadian Mounted Police supplied inaccurate and unfair information to the US officials who deported him. The US sent Arar, not to Canada, but to his native Syria, where he was tortured. Arrested at age 15, Khadr was the youngest Guantanamo detainee, a violation of the UN Convention of the Rights of Children. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's very right wing (by Canadian, not US standards) government is the only western democracy that did not ask for and achieve the return of its nationals from Guantanamo.

Parker Donham, a writer and consultant who lives on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, blogs at
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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