Toward the 9/11 Anniversary: 'Captive to This Single Threat'

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We're nearing the annual retrospectives on what we've learned, forgotten, done right, done wrong in the years since the original attacks. George Friedman, of Stratfor, is an early entry with an essay today on "The Nine Year War" that, to my mind, makes very good sense.

Friedman by no means trivializes the ongoing risk from al Qaeda or similar groups, nor the losses the U.S. endured nine years ago, nor the understandable mood of panic when Americans had no idea of how soon, or how seriously, they might be hit again. But he takes the sensible and necessary (but risky) step of asking, how much does this affect our largest and most enduring interests as a nation? Eg:

Let me state a more radical thesis: The threat of terrorism cannot become the singular focus of the United States. Let me push it further: The United States cannot subordinate its grand strategy to simply fighting terrorism even if there will be occasional terrorist attacks on the United States. Three thousand people died in the 9/11 attack. That is a tragedy, but in a nation of over 300 million, 3,000 deaths cannot be permitted to define the totality of national strategy. Certainly, resources must be devoted to combating the threat and, to the extent possible, disrupting it. But it must also be recognized that terrorism cannot always be blocked, that terrorist attacks will occur and that the world's only global power cannot be captive to this single threat.

The idea that terrorism continues to be a threat, but cannot be the dominant and overwhelming threat around which the United States organizes its international affairs and distributes its resources, is one this magazine has developed over the years. For instance here and here, back in 2006. It's a very difficult idea for politicians even to mention, for blame-avoidance reasons. If any American ever dies from any terrorist activity ever again -- which certainly will happen -- then a politician will be pummeled for having pooh-poohed the risk.

On this one, politicians will have to trail a mature public awareness of terrorism's place among the many, many challenges America must address. Friedman's essay is a 2,000-word contribution toward that mature discussion. Worth reading.

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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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