More 'Lessons' of 9/11: Resilience, Not Fear

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In interviews I conducted for this magazine six years ago, which led to this article early in 2005 and this one in 2006, I heard again and again a theme that was familiar to historians and military strategists but that was not really part of mainstream discussion.

The theme was: terrorists don't threaten a modern society through the damage they directly inflict. Not through the buildings destroyed, the airplanes brought down, nor even the innocent people killed. All those consequences are terrible, as we will reflect upon once more tomorrow. But the real danger of terrorist attacks, and the real aspiration of those who plan them, is the destructive over-reaction they provoke. Four years ago I quoted an anti-terrorism expert thus:

"Does al-Qaeda still constitute an 'existential' threat?" asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents... He was referring to the argument about whether the terrorism of the twenty-first century endangers the very existence of the United States and its allies, as the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might).

"I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons," Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists [and nationalists] in the nineteenth century. "If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat." But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. "So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

"It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat," he concluded. "Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It's al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger."

Since 9/11, this equation has worked in al-Qaeda's favor. That can be reversed.

This line of reasoning -- terrorism does not pose a mortal national danger, but an unthinking response to terrorism might -- was contemptuously waved away by Administration officials in the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld era. it is becoming more widespread, as noted previously here and here. Indeed, as I type these words I hear President Obama giving a version of this analysis -- terrorists are evil and they will continue to do damage, but they are a handful of people and we should not magnify their importance or power or foolishly enhance their appeal -- at the end of his press conference.

More on that shortly. For now, after the jump, a list of a few more complementary bits of evidence of a possible change in the American mind. The dark side of this ninth anniversary of the attacks is the nasty anti-Muslim fervor.  A conceivably brighter side is a shift from an ethic of fear to one of resilience.

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Latest signs of a shift in mood:

- On our site, Chris Good mentions the new Ted Koppel version of the argument that America's overreaction in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and elsewhere continues to do al Qaeda's bidding.

- Sam Roggeveen, of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, cites an essay by the Australian scholar Hugh White, thus:

For almost a decade, America's political leaders have convinced themselves that a small group of fugitives on the run in Pakistan poses a bigger challenge to America's place in the world than the economic transformation of the world's most populous nation. Future historians will find that hard to explain.

Roggeveen also mentions Fareed Zakaria's argument to similar effect.

- Below a note from a reader on the 9/11 observances:

I've been re-reading an old favorite Wallace Stegner novel, "The Spectator Bird", which is basically a cogitation on growing old as well as an exploration of the reasons for migrating to this country. A few sentences from the middle of the book (p. 110 in my yellowing Penguin paperback):
"What did the Europeans gain by Columbus? The illusion of freedom, I suppose. But did they gain or lose when they gave up the tentative safety of countries and cultures where the rules were as well known as the dangers, and had been tailored to the dangers, and went raiding in a virgin continent that was neither country nor culture, and isn't yet, and may never be, and yet has never given up the dangerous illusion of infinite possibility? What good did it all do, if we end in confusion and purposelessness on the far Pacific shore of America, or come creeping back to our origins looking for something we have lost and can't name?
No sooner do I ask that than I have to admit that what brought my mother and a lot of others to the New World was precisely the hope of safety, not any lust for freedom."
In the novel, the narrator's mother, like my own father, emigrated from Denmark. I'm sure my father wasn't looking for freedom. He was escaping poverty the only way he knew how. We seem to have accepted politicians' trope that the terrorists envy us our freedom, but doesn't that oversimplification keep us from confronting something about ourselves and our relationship to the rest of the world? They take advantage of our freedom to hurt us, but we take advantage of the world in other ways. We think we deserve to live in a bubble of prosperity.

Doesn't it seem as though the culture is making a fetish of 9/11? Something we are celebrating in a perverse way, as a shield that keeps us from criticism? I'm not quite sure what I mean, but I'm getting uncomfortable every time someone uses the anniversary of 9/11 to make a statement. Maybe it is perpetual victimhood.
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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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