It’s 9/11 again. Like the nine anniversaries that came before, it’s a time for reflection not only on the unique horror of that day, but also on the aftermath. Though the victim’s families finally have a permanent place to mourn and find some measure of cathartic resolution, the personal and national search for meaning will continue.
The question of whether we’ve responded appropriately to terrorism is central to the nation’s deliberation. The idea of “letting the terrorists win” is the most simplistic manifestation of that uncertainty. The United States has spent the last ten years at war - with two nations and in many others. The cost has been immense. It’s legitimate to ask what we have gained from it.
More importantly, our approach to domestic security has changed dramatically. With an insistence that the law was insufficiently deferential to law enforcement and security agencies, the Bush administration set about changing the laws. Today the government has more power to know, document, and change our lives than ever before. In some cases, even that was not enough - and the law was ignored. Today there is often more indignity and suspicion thrust upon travelers at American airports than customers in American gun shops. Undoubtedly we have lost some part of the free society we once were. What is worse, we - in Congress and in the public at large - were accomplices then and we remain so today. We demanded safety over liberty.
It is unlikely that we will ever change our minds. Kevin Drum provides a thoughtful opinion on this:
I imagine the wars will all be over eventually, Al Qaeda will conclusively dismembered, and even the drones might be put back in their hangars. But the protective apparatus we’ve put in place, both the less visible surveillance state and the highly visible security state, will be with us forever. And they’ll get worse and worse …
But I think this is peripheral to the question of whether “the terrorists have won.” It’s common to hear the argument that if we have changed the way we live our lives, then they have won. If we don’t get on the subway, or bus, or a plane, then they have won. If our civil liberties have eroded, then they have won. This is false. Terrorists win when they achieve - or come closer to achieving - their political goals.
Though there is no standard or uniform definition of terrorism, I’d imagine the least controversial one runs roughly like this: Terrorism consists of (1) acts of violence against persons, property not found “on the battlefield” (2) conducted by irregular forces often not acting under the auspices of a recognized nation (3) the intent of which is to change the mood of a populous (4) to achieve a political goal.
The success or lack of success of terrorism of terrorist acts or campaigns can be judged from both tactical and strategic perspectives. Tactical success is simple to achieve: did the bomb go off? Were people killed? Was it caught on camera? Etc.
Strategic success is more complicated: Was the broad political agenda of a terrorist group achieved? It’s distressingly common (to me) to hear that Osama bin Laden managed to achieve a great many of his goals before being killed. Yes, the United States was drawn into two immensely costly wars. We have lost lives, and taken many more ourselves. We have given away our liberty. We should feel the shame of these blunders.
But our shame is not necessarily Al-Qaeda’s success. The United States is mired in a variety of economic problems: a recent financial crisis and the ensuing recession, unprecedented income inequality, declining levels of union membership. But the ability of the United States to pay its debts - including the colossal debt we have undertaken to finance wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - is not in question. And those problems we do have are of our own making.
A large part of bin Laden’s war on the west was predicated on striking at the economic dominance of the United States. His experience fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was a valuable lesson in bleeding empires of their money. He imagined the same was possible with the United States.
Not only that. Our staggering wealth was a particularly valuable tool in recruiting the desperate youth caught in the entrenched poverty of the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. If he could leverage jealousy of our wealth and power, he could make war with the west a flag around which to rally the disenfranchised of the Muslim world.
Two major goals are clear here: the bankruptcy of the United States and unity in the Muslim world.
The United States can borrow at negative real interest rates. Not only are we not on the brink of economic collapse; creditors are willing to pay the US government for the privilege of loaning it money. What economic dominance we are losing is headed to China and India, not to a newly unified Muslim world.
Al-Qaeda’s campaign of violence did not unify the Muslim world. The years immediately following the invasion of Iraq were defined by sectarian conflict, which Al-Qaeda was careful to exploit. The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found that Al-Qaeda claimed eight times as many Muslim lives as non-Muslim lives between 2004 and 2008. Is it any wonder that the group’s popularity has plummeted in the Muslim world?
And perhaps the most bitter defeat for Al-Qaeda must have been the sight of young, poor Muslims crowding the streets of Middle Eastern and North African cities demanding democracy. The “Arab Spring” movement is fueled by exactly the same kind of class resentment bin Laden sought to leverage.
As though that were not enough, Al-Qaeda’s comparatively smaller defeats are many.
Bin Laden sought to remove the United States from Saudi Arabia. We remain there.
Bin Laden decried the moral depravity of American culture. It has proliferated further into the world than ever before.
Bin Laden sought to carry out more attacks within the United States. In a nation where fertilizer and city buses are easily accessible, not one has succeeded.
His organization is in tatters. Its goals remain unaccomplished. He is dead.
The fact that we have so brazenly sacrificed many of our civil liberties - probably permanently - is tragic, but not relevant to the issue of whether Al-Qaeda has or has not succeeded. Remember that bin Laden considered the Taliban’s Afghanistan - not a society that valued civil liberties very highly - to be his model for remaking the Muslim world. I find it very hard to believe that he cares one way or the other how we organize our security policy.
We don’t need to ask whether or not “the terrorists have won.” Al-Qaeda is defeated. What should keep us up at night is the price we paid for that victory.
Vitriol for Bernanke, Despite the Facts in The New York Times
How Much Is Obama Really to Blame for the Economy? - The Atlantic
-John Galbraith, writing in The Affluent Society
It’s hard to understate the irony of belief in “the American dream” inhibiting its actual accomplishment. It’s also important not to understate it.