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.
Latest signs of a shift in mood:
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?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.
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."
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.