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The Lessons of 9/11

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If the talking points of the left are to be believed – and they shouldn’t automatically to be discounted – nothing the Administration has done in the War on Terror since 9/11 has accomplished anything meaningful in protecting us from terrorism. Yet the fact remains that we haven’t suffered a significant terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11. One constant point hammered on by critics of the War on Terror is that it’s being used as a ‘fearmongering’ tactic to build political capital by frightening voters into thinking they can only be safe by voting for Republicans in 2006. It’s an interesting perspective, but if President Bush is fearmongering he has an awfully strange way of going about it. I may be concerned about some of Bush’s methods, but his willingness to go to extremes in pursuing terrorists is more reassuring than frightening. Being told our government is doing everything they can to fight terror as he does speech after speech, ought to be what we want to hear, not something that scares us.

In a recent letter to supporters, Tom Matzzie of suggested some talking points for letters to legislators which sound an awful lot like fearmongering in their own right.

And our story is important to tell—both to protect America and our democracy. Here are some key points to discuss in your letter (all of them are listed in the online tool too).
Five years after 9/11, the Bush administration has failed to keep us safe.
The war in Iraq has diverted attention from protecting America from terrorism.
The war in Iraq has inflamed the whole Middle East and is helping Al Qaeda attract new recruits. Osama Bin Laden is still on the loose.
Katrina showed all of us that the Republicans aren’t able to protect America at home. The Republican Congress hasn’t followed through on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.

Mostly valid points, though the fact remains that there hasn’t been a terrorist attack on US soil in the five years since Al Qaeda brought down the Twin Towers, and an Osama on the run seems to be far less effective than he was sitting at the middle of his terror network and pulling every string. But at the same time, isn’t this rhetoric just as overblown as anything coming from the right? What’s more frightening or a better example of fearmongering than shouting over and over again that the people who are supposed to be protecting us aren’t doing their job? There’s clearly plenty of political opportunism to go around.

So, the War on Terror has produced mixed results. Less than half of the 9/11 Commission’s recomendations have been implemented, Osama remains at large, and there’s a big mess in Iraq. On the other hand, a lot more terrorists are getting caught than are pulling off successful attacks, that mess in Iraq is killing potential terrorists faster than it makes them, and airport security is enough of a pain in the ass to discourage regular people from flying, much less terrorists.

What both the left and the right agree on is that ‘everything has changed since 9/11′. But has it really?

Before 9/11 the perception was that the United States was not particularly threatened by terrorism. Worldwide we’re talking about one major attack against a US target every five years on average, including domestic terrorism and other non-muslim terrorist groups. Take a look at a list of terrorist attacks sometime and compare the number of attacks in Israel or the Philippines or Ireland or India with the attacks in the US. Even since 9/11 we’re not exactly under constant, ongoing attack. There’s been no appreciable increase in the frequency of attacks on civilian targets or in attempted and foiled attacks in the period since 9/11 when compared with any earlier period. 9/11 may have made us more concerned about terrorism, but there’s no indication that terrorism is more of a real threat than it was 20 years ago when we hardly thought about it.

Admittedly, every successful terrorist attack is a tragedy – none more so than the 9/11 attacks. And there are terrorists out there every day planning how they’re going to attack us. They’re a genuine threat. But putting aside the magnitude of their success on 9/11, despite all the hate the terrorists may have for us they haven’t been able to pull off that many actual successful attacks. We may not be doing the best job of protecting ourselves, but it’s clearly no easy task to mount a successful terrorist attack of any significant scale. If it were easy there are enough terrorists and enough targets that we’d be facing attacks on a daily or at least a weekly basis.

9/11 was five years ago, but despite the time which has passed we still lack perspective. The attack was dramatic and horrifying and our reaction to it has been somewhat irrational. As our political factions opportunistically use the memory of 9/11 to advance their interests, we follow along wallowing in despair and nostalgia and fantasies of revenge – none of which are particularly positive reactions, especially this far out from the actual events.

Here are some hard facts we ought to be considering on this anniversary.

• In a world where there is oppression, economic inequity and religious fanaticism there is going to be terrorism. It will never go away unless those causes are eliminated, and those causes cannot realistically be eliminated even by a nation as wealthy and powerful as the United States. This does not mean we shouldn’t make a reasonable effort to help around the world, but we have to know our limits and weigh the costs against the potential benefits. The simple truth is that with every job we create and every TV show we export to the third world we do more to fight terrorism in the long run by raising up their economies and spreading our cultural values than we do with all our threats and surveillance.

• Terrorist demands are not relevant or worthy of consideration. When the terrorists tell us that our support of Israel is the reason we are attacked, why do we care? Our support or lack of support of other nations should be based on their merits, not the opinions of their enemies, and if there’s anyone whose demands don’t deserve serious consideration it’s people who think that killing innocents is a way to solve problems and get what they want.

• The concept of a War on Terror is inherently flawed. You cannot win a war on a phenomenon which is natural symptom of the dynamics of society. We are treating the symptoms of a disease which cannot be cured. Up to a point this is a worthwhile tool of self-defense, but there are absolute limits to how effective such efforts can be and a point at which the cost we pay to distract and interdict terrorism is higher than is justified. We should certainly hunt down and eliminate every terrorist and terrorist group we can, but grand gestures like a foreign war designed as a terrorist roach motel may be too costly to sustain in the long term.

• There will be another 9/11. It’s inevitable that another major attack against Americans or on American soil will happen, and probably within the relatively near future. We need to accept this and learn to live with it. Lots of people around the world live with terrorism as a daily threat and just deal with it and go on with their lives. We should take a lesson from the example of Israel and be a bit more stoic about problems which we cannot solve – and perhaps avoid some of the mistakes they’ve made in the area of excessive reprisals.

• No amount of terrorism is going to destroy the United States. The nation is just too big, too rich and too much of a juggernaut to treat the occasional terrorist attack as more than a bump in the road. If anything the occasional terrorist attack should just make us stronger, break up our complacency and remind us of the values we have to stand for and preserve. We’re in a lot more danger from the overreaction of government in prosecuting the war on terror when they make changes to our laws which run counter to the principles on which our nation was founded. There’s no point in fighting terrorism if we give up those things which make America unique in the process.

I would not argue that we should forget 9/11 or those who died so unfairly on that day. But letting that act of violence redefine us as a nation is not a healthy response. Lowering ourselves to the level of those who attack us by stealth and terror merely weakens us and strenghtens them.

Every time you step out of your door you take your life in your hands and accept a certain amount of risk as part of life. We do what we can to minimize that risk, but that does not mean that we need to live in fear. Those who tell us we do, whether on the right or the left, whether because of terrorists or food additives or global warming, aren’t doing us any favors and are advancing their interests, not ours.

The world if full of problems and terrorism is one of them. It’s a hell of a lot better to deal with problems than to run from them and to accept the world as it is rather than live in denial. The events of 9/11 awakened us to the fact that terrorism is part of our lives. We have to decide if it makes more sense to accept that simple fact, deal with it and go on with our lives, or to continue to shake our fists and curse fate and live in a state of irrational fear forever.

Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

About Dave Nalle

  • jamal

    Not only is Bush currently pushing his ‘war on terror’, he has suggested the invasion was warranted although he does acknowledge mistakes were made, and has been accused of luring Saddam into war.

    The threat of a 45 minute attack by Saddam Hussain’s Weapons of Mass destruction was a lie, and the subsequent war on Iraq has only served to pertuate terror elsewhere.

    You may not have suffered a significant terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11, but the fact remains you live on high alert of major incidents occuring, with many of your troops dead.

  • MCH


    By DINESH RAMDE – Associated Press Writer – 09/29/06

    MILWAUKEE — Sgt. 1st Class Merideth Howard, 52, a turret gunner in the Army Reserve’s 405th Civil Affairs Battalion, became on Sept. 8 the oldest female U.S. soldier killed in action since military operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq. A car bomber slammed into her vehicle, killing her and Staff Sgt. Robert Paul, 43, of The Dalles, Ore.

    For Howard, age was never an issue, said her husband, Hugh Hvolboll, who moved with her to the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha in 2004. “She did anything she wanted to,” he said.

    Howard held undergraduate and master’s degrees in marine biology. When she discovered she was prone to seasickness, she switched careers and became a firefighter in Bryan, Texas, becoming the city’s first female firefighter in 1978.

    She was about 5’4″ but she made up for her size with determination and a strength that matched her burly co-workers, recalled Bryan Fire Department Chief Mike Donoho.

    Even so, some question why a woman her age would be called up to active duty. Her 78-year-old uncle, Herbert Kurtz, said he felt Howard was too old to dodge bullets. “I was drafted in the Korean War. Heck, at this rate, maybe they’ll draft me again,” he said.

    Of the 66 women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, 51 are 30 or younger, according to Judy Bellafaire, chief historian for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C. Four women, aged 41 to 44, were the oldest casualties before Howard.

    Howard’s friends and family say she knew the risks when she joined the Army Reserves in 1988. She planned to retire in two years at the 20-year mark, they say. “She had beautiful blue eyes,” Hvolboll said. “We hit it off right away, like we’d known each other for years.”

    The couple dated for 14 years, marrying in December 2005 only when Howard found out she was being called up. Howard’s lasting legacy, her husband said, is the love she had for friends, family and life.