A few days after 9/11, I was talking to an op-ed page editor at a major newspaper, pitching a piece I wanted to write. The piece was going to stress the importance of controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction. I was going to argue that, horrific as 9/11 had been, it was nothing compared to what terrorists might accomplish decades from now if we didn't get nuclear and biological weapons under control. Underscoring the point, I said to the editor, "The truth is, 3,000 deaths isn't all that many deaths."
She replied, "You can't say that."
She was right. Feelings were so raw right after 9/11 that seeming to minimize its magnitude would have discredited anything else I said in the piece. In fact, even seeming to minimize its magnitude now -- a decade after the event -- probably won't help my popularity.
I think this is our main enemy in the war on terror: the difficulty we have keeping terrorism's toll in perspective. This difficulty is responsible for some disastrous post-9/11 policies and is likely to bring more of them -- a succession of "anti-terrorism" initiatives that increase the amount of terrorism we face. It's a positive-feedback cycle of a negative sort: Terrorist attack happens, we freak out and react with dumb policies that help jihadist recruiters, and this in turn leads to more terrorism, more overreaction, more dumb policies, and so on. This vicious circle has already completed one revolution, in three clearly identifiable phases.
Phase one: America invades Iraq. Advocates of the war rely heavily on our blinding overreaction to 9/11, on retributive rage and a panicked sense of vulnerability. How else to explain that, in order to find suspected weapons of mass destruction, we invaded a country that was at that moment letting UN inspectors look wherever they wanted for those weapons? Meanwhile, as the Iraq War goes on, the Afghan War -- the one arguably justified post-9/11 war -- spawns another war, or at least quasi-war, as we start using drone strikes in Pakistan.
Phase two: The 9/11 wars and quasi-wars lead to terrorist attacks. Major Nidal Hasan, who at Fort Hood perpetrated the biggest post-9/11 terrorist attack on American soil, was, colleagues said, enraged by the two wars. The would-be Times Square bomber said his goal was to avenge the killing of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Phase three: America overreacts to the terrorist attacks. The Times Square bomber was a follower of the exiled American jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki (as was the foiled "underwear bomber" of 2009). In May, America targeted al-Awlaki, in Yemen, with a drone strike. "We were hoping it was him," said a U.S. official. But it turned out to be, as one news account put it, "two brothers believed to be Al Qaeda militants."
Oh well, maybe next time we'll get him. Or maybe next time we'll get two brothers who, after the post-mortem, aren't even "believed to be" Al Qaeda militants. (Maybe they'll be killed because they have the same names as high-profile militants -- as has, in fact, happened.) In any event, we've come full circle: We've responded to terrorists created by our killing of Muslims in foreign countries by killing more Muslims in foreign countries. This could go on awhile.
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