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Did Everything Change?

The impact of the 9/11 attacks may not be that great after all.
September 16, 2002

Americans had a quandary last week: what to do on September 11? Pray? Pause for a moment of silence? Go to a performance of Mozart’s Requiem? Or have picnics, as we do on Memorial Day? Only the TV networks seemed to know what to do. On September 11, CBS broadcast “The Day that Changed America.” Fox showed “The Day America Changed.” PBS featured “How We Changed,” every night for a week. The similar titles reflected the truism so widely repeated in the months after September 11: the United States, the world, will never be the same. Some young people I know had been more frightened, a year ago, by the prophecy of change than by the constant repetition of the images of the World Trade Center collapsing. But had the predicted change really come true?

In prior columns, I have discussed the technologies, high and low, of terrorism and counterterrorism. Now that a year has passed since that horrible day, it seems appropriate to step back to reflect, to deviate from my usual hardware focus, and to muse on this larger question: how have we changed, and why?

Yes, some things are different. More than 3,000 people died in the United States, most of whom would be alive today if not for al Qaeda. But that by itself is not enough to change the U.S. Sudden, unexpected, tragic deaths have always plagued the world. Since 9/11, there have probably been about 150,000 accidental deaths in the United States, each just as unexpected and tragic as the September 11 ones. (150,000 was the number in 1998.) Medical tragedies are even more common. A few months ago I lost a dear friend to an unexpected coronary embolism. Suddenly, without warning, he was dead. That was just as tragic, to his family and to me, as were the September 11 deaths to their friends and families. I am not minimizing those deaths. But we are a big country. You have to kill many more than 3,000 people to change America forever.

Some would say that the attacks damaged our economy. Maybe so, but I believe that the dotcom crash and the corporate fraud scandals had a bigger impact and were more important to the downswing than the terrorism.

Some might say that the biggest change in America is the erosion of our civil liberties. At the Guantanamo Bay naval base alone we hold 600 prisoners stripped of rights. But even that is relatively small, compared to what many expected after 9/11. And erosion of civil liberties has always been a problem requiring vigilance, even prior to the Ashcroft era. Many of the restrictions the courts have recently placed on the Attorney General outlawed procedures used by the FBI during the Clinton administration. In that sense, little has changed.

In contrast to the U.S., Afghanistan really has changed, in a way that al Qaeda must detest. I don’t claim that we have turned Afghanistan into a democracy, and I am as appalled as everyone else at the reports of continuing murders and corruption. But I take great pleasure in the films of women going back to work and attending school, and to the return of some degree of civil liberties and religious freedom to that country. To my mind, despite many shortcomings, Afghanistan is enormously better off now than it was on September 11.

There is another way that the world has changed. Terrorist groups around the globe can no longer plausibly dismiss the United States as a gutless tiger with no claws who retreats at the first sign of body bags. I think that is good. The high tech weapons that we had been developing for decades finally behaved roughly as advertised. It is possible that we could we have handled Afghanistan better, but it is hard to dispute that our image as a coward has vanished. Did hatred of the U.S. increase because of our actions? It is hard to tell from my viewpoint in Berkeley. But most of the Muslim world is moderate, and I believe that it is watching the liberation of women in Afghanistan with the same joy as you and me.

Osama bin Laden failed. What had he hoped to achieve? Let me give you my best guess.

Prior to September 11, bin Laden had fought alongside the Afghan freedom fighters and had helped defeat the Soviet Union. That had given him the reputation of a giant killer, a miracle worker. He expected the U.S. to respond to the attack with an invasion of Afghanistan (he was right). He believed that the Taliban would refuse to turn him over (again, he was right). As soon as our first troops landed (to capture him in an expedition similar to the raid we attempted in Somalia in 1993), he expected the entire Muslim world to rise in outrage. First would be Pakistan, entering the war on the side of their friends the Taliban (he was wrong). Next, Iran. As the U.S. became trapped, perhaps even Iraq would join the alliance against the U.S.

The U.S. would be surrounded, bloodied and strangled, and soon would withdraw in shame, as we had in Somalia and in Lebanon. The mood among American citizens would be clear: never again shall we commit troops to the Middle East. With the U.S. unwilling to intervene, bin Laden expected to be able to walk into Saudi Arabia and take over, amidst the cheers of all Arabs, and to be recognized as the Mahdi, the prophesied Muslim messiah.

Instead, the Taliban have been defeated and ousted. Al Qaeda is in disarray. Afghanistan is a new friend of the U.S. The “second wave” of terrorism never came (unless you believe, as I do, that the anthrax attack was a failed second wave-see “Al Qaeda’s Anthrax”). Bin Laden himself was likely killed in Tora Bora. And now the U.S. is going after Saddam. (My guess: with an assassination attack rather than a massive invasion; see “Springtime, Taxes, and the Attack on Iraq.”) It is hard to conceive of a worse outcome for al Qaeda.

For many of us, those with no close friends or relatives among the 3,000 killed, the change in our lives consists of occasional ruminations and delays at airports. Many of us read and learned more about Islam, and that is a small but important change for the better. Are Americans more cautious now?  Yes, we’ll say, if asked, but it’s a perfunctory answer. In fact, we are already taking the trips we had postponed. We’ve mostly forgotten. It is truly remarkable how little our lives have changed. But don’t despair over this fact. We have a truly robust country, and it takes more than a few acts of violence to bring us down. We can take pride in the fact that we weren’t changed.

Al Qaeda created tragedy, but that was not its goal. They wanted to create terror. They failed badly.

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