The Lessons of 9/11, Ten Years Later
Now we can relax, think a bit and indulge our hindsight. There was no recurrence, despite reports of credible and specific threats.
Our defenses are working. So is our offense: our superb but secret counterintelligence, our ninjas, and our drones. If the best defense is a good offense, we have finally hit our stride, under a president who understands foreign cultures and how to deal with them [end of post].
As it turns out, an effective response didn’t require declaring war on Iraq or any of the sixty countries that, knowingly or not, harbor terrorists or their sympathizers. We didn’t have to take on the Taliban either. All we had to do was go after the tiny band of extremists who are threatening us.
That we are now doing, after ten years of flailing about with grossly disproportionate and therefore ineffective military responses.
Al Qaeda was once our worst enemy. But now it’s on the run. Bin Laden is dead, executed by our modern ninjas, of which we have a whole regiment. So are most of Al Qaeda Central’s leadership.
The terrorists can’t use modern telecommunications against us because we can hear them. They can’t use air power because we can see them and shoot them down. They can’t use plague bioterror weapons because they’d kill themselves and theirs first. They have trouble moving among us because they throw off clues the way a sneezing flu patient throws off viruses.
They can only use stealth, as they did on 9/11. But now we are ready. The element of surprise is gone. And now the whole civilized world is with us, sharing intelligence and cooperating to shut Al Qaeda down.
Most of all, the Arab Spring has made Al Qaeda irrelevant. Its self-professed goal was to free Muslims from the rule of Western-dominated tyrants, especially in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. That’s why Bin Laden and nearly all the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and Al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s second in command (still at large) was Egyptian.
But now the Arab Spring is doing that, with far less bloodshed and far more success than Al Qaeda ever enjoyed. The Saudi Princes likely will be the last tyrants to fall, but their days, too, are numbered.
And it won’t be explosions in Western democracies that defeat them, but ordinary Arabs and Muslims seeking the same opportunities that people elsewhere, including the BRIC nations, now have. As many already have done, Arabian and Muslim martyrs will risk their lives not to kill Americans and other Westerners, but to secure their freedom. They will do so just the same way every other people has throughout history: by struggling, fighting and, where necessary, dying for it.
So now, with the aid of hindsight and a growing degree of confidence, we can see more clearly the lessons of 9/11. Most of them are negative, as follows:
1. It’s not a good idea to threaten sixty foreign nations with war, simply because they may harbor inimical non-state actors.
2. It’s not a good idea to make war on an already war-ravaged nation (Afghanistan) just because its current leaders won’t turn over a terrorist. Even Teddy Roosevelt, when he famously said "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead!" had a specific country, person and location in mind and means to carry out his threat quickly and with minimal cost.
3. It’s equally not a good idea to start a war in an irrelevant third country (Iraq), using the pretext of a terrorist attack by people from and hiding elsewhere.
4. When first responders have to enter a hellish environment in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, it’s best not to do “photo ops” that encourage them to doff their protective gear, lest thoughtless bravado injure or kill them as terrorists could not. And it’s a good idea to give them radios that work, so they can hear orders to evacuate. Get it, Rudy?
5. It’s generally not a good idea to make war on a nation simply because small bands of terrorists are hiding there. Doing so incurs the enmity of that nation’s leaders (legitimate or not), its people, and its casualties and survivors from “collateral damage,” who otherwise might be on your side.
6. It’s best not to elect “deciders,” whether presidents or mayors, who are stupid enough not only to do the things noted in points 1 through 5, but to brag about their blunders and call them “patriotism.”
7. Dwelling morbidly on losses from an attack can promote fear and trembling, which nearly always leads to overreaction and poor decisions in the face of danger.
8. As FDR so well put it, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Our continual obsession with 9/11, including incessant replays of the Twin Towers falling, only aids and abets our native enemies within. Fear and overreaction have done us more harm than any terrorist attack we ever suffered, including 9/11.
Although these negative lessons are by far the most important, 9/11 also taught us some positive things, to wit:
1. A nation of 300 million people, with the strongest and most innovative economy in human history, can be incredibly resilient, as long as it retains confidence in itself and does not succumb to fear.
2. Responding effectively to attacks and the threat of encores requires both defense and offense. Cowering behind the TSA at home is not our best policy. But neither is making war on people who had nothing directly to do with the attacks, as we have done and are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
3. Innovation and imagination are the best responses to new threats. What better way to counter terrorists bent on killing innocent civilians than sending ninjas out to kill them [end of post]?
4. Use of force proportionate to a threat is not only right and moral. It’s also more effective because it creates less unnecessary opposition and fewer unintended consequences.
5. A nation that acts boldly, quickly, proportionately and cleverly need not fear, just as fear will not help a nation with stupid, unimaginative leaders.