9/11

I was in my lounge chair on the lawn, perusing a coin sale catalog and enjoying the beautiful weather when, shortly before 10 AM, my wife drove up, got out of the car with tears in her eyes, and said, “The United States has been attacked!”

Some say we have overreacted, and there is truth in it. But if government has any unarguably legitimate function, it is to protect citizens’ lives and property. In the wake of 9/11, government could not have simply shrugged.

In fact, prior to 9/11, government had been aware of this threat, and was working on it; there had even been efforts to kill bin Laden. One could say this was inadequate. But, in a kind of compensatory symmetry, the subsequent response was over-adequate in many ways.

While clearly, radical Islam had declared war on us, we didn’t have to accept those terms of conflict. But we took their bait, gave them what they craved: the battle for the world, mano-a-mano with the big boy. We didn’t have to dignify them like that. Instead, we might have said: You’re wasting your time (and lives).

Because these stupid attacks are not going to achieve anything. You can hijack all the planes you want, blow up all the trains you want, but it’s not going to get you anywhere. We’ll still have plenty of planes and trains and our society will carry on as before. You’re like mosquitos: annoying but incapable of real injury.

I don’t mean to minimize the carnage of the 9/11 atrocity. Nobody values every individual human life more than I do. But still, some perspective is needed. For a nation that tolerates 30,000 annual highway deaths, without rushing into a “War on Accidents,” a terrorist strike killing 3,000 is not an existential threat.

So, yes, it was right to do everything reasonable to thwart further attacks; just as we should do everything reasonable to prevent auto deaths. But if auto deaths were not the Number One problem confronting America, then surely terrorism wasn’t it either. Yet we acted as though it was.

That fundamental error has led us to incur enormous costs – in further lives lost, in civil liberties, and in dollars, most obviously, but in other ways too. America has most regrettably compromised one of its finest qualities, as an open society. Hearing the names of all the 9/11 victims, one is struck that they came here from all over the world. Our post-9/11 inhospitality toward foreigners is tragic. We let foreign students study here, and then refuse permission to stay. We’ve undermined our moral stature, with torture and other human rights lapses. And we’ve allowed our whole foreign policy to be twisted – hijacked, if you will – into a wrong-headed priority, subordinating our truly important national interests, to this veritable monomania about terrorism.

Humans are rational creatures, certainly far the most rational on Earth. We evolved that way to deal effectively with the life-or-death challenges of the natural world confronting our ancestors. Evolution also gave us a repertoire of gut responses, to act instantly, without ratiocination, when needed. That primordial response system remains basically in place, even though the world we inhabit today is enormously different. Thus it’s hard for us to respond to its challenges in a wholly rational way. As, for example, when comparing the risks of car travel versus air travel. The 9/11 hijackers actually killed more people in cars than in planes, by persuading many that driving would be safer than flying.

It wasn’t – even counting the terrorism risk. But terrorism triggers such primal responses that we can’t compare it objectively with other problems that actually have far greater importance.

This only served to fuel the fire, by giving Islamic radicals the idea that there really was something in this suicide attack thing. Eventually, they would have figured out that it did nothing to improve their situation; that realization, hopefully, is being accelerated now by the examples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, showing that the road to Muslim renaissance runs not through Western countries, but their own.

Yes, we need to remain vigilant against terrorism. I think we also need to see through our moral commitments to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya (and indeed, do more for those in Syria). But we must stop acting as though terrorism is the central concern of America in the world. The terrorism tail must no longer be allowed to wag the American dog.

And we no longer should be removing our shoes in airports.

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6 Responses to “9/11”

  1. Lee Says:

    Thank you.

    Over these last ten years approximately 60,000,000 children have died of hunger world wide. That’s about five September 11s each and every of those 3652 days.

  2. Alfredo De La Fe Says:

    Frank, I have to disagree on one point here… Car accidents are just that, accidents. An attack on the other hand can not go unanswered. The effects of citizens losing confidence in the ability of their government to keep them secure would be worse than if we faced a worst case scenario natural disaster where tens of thousands of people were to die. Our economy could potentially colapse, considering that the strength of the dollar is in large part due to the might of the US military.

    I never expected to see sand bags and heavy machine guns on the streets of Manhattan, but somehow I felt a little better seeing them there.

    [FSR comment: Accidents may be accidents, but you’re just as dead. If all the money we spend on anti-terrorism were instead spent on highway safety, we’d save far more lives.
    The strength of the dollar is grounded in the strength of our economy, not our military.
    Machine guns in Manhattan are not making you safer. Probably it’s a hundred times likelier that one of those bullets will strike an innocent person than a terrorist.]

  3. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    from Frank’s wife Therese — I wrote a poem about that morning ten years ago. Many people wrote poems about that day. Today I re-read that poem to myself, and then I take a moment of silence.

  4. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    from Frank’s wife Therese — Three of the first-year students at the university where our daughter is a first-year student are children of victims of 9/11. They came to the university to study its peace & justice curriculum. I’m not about to tell my daughter, when she meets those young people, to tell them that our country’s resources are better spent on reducing car accidents. Also among those first-year students are young people who have been war refugees and who come from Africa: perhaps they will take their education with them back to their homelands, to help solve problems about which they know more than Americans do. I am glad that Frank and I are supporting a university which supports the education of young people from abroad, young people who can then go back to their own countries and work for peace, the end of terrorism, the solution to mass starvation caused by political corruption.

    [FSR comment: Thank you for your comment. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for foreigners who study in America to return to their home countries. I do think it’s bad if we don’t let them stay here if they want to. Certainly bad for America. And I don’t think we honor the memory of 9/11 victims by spending $55 billion annually on the Department of Homeland Security, and taking our shoes off at airports.]

  5. Scott Semans Says:

    I wonder how we know that three students in a freshman class have this special status. Do they put it on their applications? Does the university seek out such information and publicize it? Do they wear badges now, or government-issued red, white and blue ribbons? I’m concerned that we are creating an expanding class of victims with entitlements. There is nothing more subversive to rational argument than a crying victim. Anecdote trumps reason every time when there is a genuinely hurting human being standing before us. Should we “always remember” or is ten years time enough to start to forget? Especially when the lessons learned were wrong in the first place.

  6. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    from Frank’s wife Therese — Scott, I attended the Matriculation Ceremony for the freshman class. The President of the university gave an overview of the incoming freshman class. He cited these students (whose parents were killed during 911) as well as many other kinds of students. His emphasis was most definitely not on the degree to which the students had been victimized. His emphasis (in my opinion) was on the diversity, strong character, and accomplishments of the incoming students. The information he shared with us about these students may have come from a variety of sources: application form, application essay or video, personal interviews, etc. I don’t know for sure where the information came from.

    I don’t know for sure, but I expect that these particular students (911 orphans) were not given extra consideration during the application process. The President remarked that this year, the competition for acceptance was greater than ever before. I expect that these students were accepted because they are exceptional people who deserved to be accepted. If I am right, then their early life experience of being a “victim” (maybe they would not use that term)has turned them into the kind of adult who gets accepted, on his/her own merits, into an excellent university. Those are the kind of adults I want in the world as examples for my own daughter.

    I don’t consider myself a rationalist. I consider myself an almost seamless combination of thinking/feeling/instinct/imagination. I don’t like dichotomies. I don’t like pitting “reason” against “feeling.” Often when I see someone crying, I feel an immediate urge to comfort. I think that, in some situations sometimes, there is a danger of subverting compassion with too much reason.

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