When I was 21, the United States experienced a national trauma: the planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the nearly 3,000 people killed in that day’s terrorist attacks, the ruins left smoldering for months at Ground Zero, and the unnerving knowledge that sooner or later, al-Qaeda would almost certainly strike again. Thoughtful deliberation is never so difficult as in such moments. Like tens of millions of other Americans, I felt fear, anger, anxiety, flashes of moral righteousness, and a desire to fight and vanquish evil as I thought about what had just happened and how America ought to respond. With hindsight, though, I can see that thoughtful deliberation is never so vital as in the aftermath of national traumas. The country would have been well served then by a better debate with less aversion to dispassion and dissent and fewer appeals to moral clarity at the expense of analytic rigor.
Recall the national determination to punish not only Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, who carried out the thousands of murders, but also the regime in Afghanistan, which harbored the terrorist organization; the dictator of Iraq, who had nothing to do with the attacks; and more abstractly, the tactic of terrorism, the ideology of Islamofascism, violent extremism in general, and terror itself. Eventually, President George W. Bush asserted that the ultimate goal was “ending tyranny in our world.” The utopian zeal he stoked portended avoidable catastrophes. But anyone who raised prudential concerns at the time was suspected of being disloyal or insensitive, or of lacking moral clarity.