I’ve wondered for years why 9/11 had to be such a big deal for Americans and America. About 3000 people died as a direct result of the attacks and the rescue efforts; reports actually vary with respect to actual numbers. That number represents about one person killed for every 100,000 residents of the United States. In Israel, a country that is plenty familiar with terrorism and its impact on daily life, a similar kill rate only requires the deaths of about 64 people. [In nine of the 20 years spanning the ‘90s and the aughts, more than 64 Israelis lost their lives as a result of terrorist attacks, albeit not on one day.] In Iraq the number is about 233. According to Iraq Body Count, between 2005 and 2007, there were an average of 60+ violent deaths in Iraq every day, the equivalent of more than 720 Americans dying violent deaths every day.
In America, by the way, about 40,000 people die in motor vehicle-related incidents annually, a number that represents one of every 7500 people. Firearms play a role in about 30,000 deaths per year, or one death for every 10,000 people, and half of those are from suicides. About 25 times as many people die in the United States every year from drowning and boating-related accidents as the number of people who died on September 11, 2001.
So, what happened? Why was a horrific terrorist attack so significant for our nation. First, al Qaeda used planes. People have a thing about plane crashes. They’re very upsetting! We accept a horrendous number of deaths from preventable causes–car crashes, shootings and drownings, for example–but, when one or two hundred people die in a plane crash, the impact on our collective psyche is huge. We recall these crashes and they take on a noteworthiness that simply isn’t present when we’re focused on the myriad ways in which people die.
I have a theory on plane crashes. I think they’re a big deal because human beings haven’t fully accepted the notion of flight. Yes, most of us walk onto planes without giving much thought to crashes. I don’t think, however, that we understand what keeps the planes in the sky; I know I don’t. I know physics explains flight, but for me the whole deal is really an act of faith: Smart people build these machines, they work on almost every occasion and I need or want to go somewhere. Without an understanding of the mechanisms that keep these metal birds moving forward, however, when one of them falls out of the sky I know I am, at once, horrified and not the least bit surprised.
The other issue associated with flight is a lack of control. We’re very controlling creatures, used to being in charge of stuff, whether that stuff is our automobiles, our children, the people we supervise at work, etc. Yet, sitting in seat 20E, in a long, hollow metal tube that is suspended in the atmosphere, eight miles high, stuck between two large people, not able to turn on my phone, not able to grab a hunk of cheese from the refrigerator and not able to use the facilities–that “stay in your seat” light is on–it should surprise no one that I don’t believe I control anything! The lack of control creates anxiety and, with it, fear.
Second, there’s the matter of the targets and, in particular, the World Trade Center. Americans experienced the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, but this building was not a familiar site like the Twin Towers. Yes, Americans were saddened by the event, but the impact did not seem greater than many other tragic situations. Watching familiar landmarks fall, however, was exceptional. (I know, I know, the number of deaths in Oklahoma City was less by a factor of almost 20, and that was surely another factor, but I still think the nature of the targets played a significant role.)
Third, Timothy McVey was one of us. White. American. A soldier. Yes, he went wrong, way wrong, and that is certainly a scary proposition, but he also valued life enough that he tried to get away. An awful man, but someone we can relate to. On the other hand, 9/11 involved this crowd from the Middle East, dark-skinned men from far away who pray to a different God and die for their cause. After 9/11 Osama Bin Laden told a reporter: “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.” Strange and much, much scarier!
Fourth, we’re more than a little bit spoiled. We haven’t had a war on our shores since the Civil War, which ended 136 years before September 11. Terrorism affected the rest of the globe, including the major capitals of the world’s democracies, long before it reached New York City, Washington, D.C. and the empty field in Pennsylvania. For example, and by way of example only (as there are many, many more incidents not reported here, and what has happened in Israel is not mentioned), London had IRA bombings and shootings, along with Islamist bombings on December 26, 1983 and July 26, 1994. Bombings in the Buenos Aires Jewish community killed 29 (and injured hundreds more) on March 17, 1992 and killed another 85 (and injured hundreds more) on July 18, 1994. Almost 1000 people were killed and injured in a series of car bombings in Mumbai on March 12, 1993. Ignoring the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 (which simply did not get our attention), most Americans have never experienced an attack on our shores. Even Pearl Harbor was different. The Naval facility was thousands of miles from the United States, in a territory that many Americans had to find on a map. And, of course, almost all of those who died were sailors, people trained to be in harm’s way, as opposed to the brokers at Cantor Fitzgerald who woke up every morning in New Jersey, prepared to do battle only with the commuter trains and the bond and equity markets. [On December 7, 1941, 2350 Americans lost their lives. Sixty eight were civilians. On September 11, 2001, Cantor Fitzgerald lost 658 employees.]
Finally, we had an administration in 2001 that was predisposed to make 9/11 a big deal! In a post-9/11, pre-Iraq war conversation on February 22, 2003 in Crawford, Texas, between President George W. Bush and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar and others, there was the following exchange:
Aznar: The only thing that worries me about you is your optimism.
Bush: I am an optimist, because I believe that I’m right. I’m at peace with myself. It’s up to us to face a serious threat to peace.
The public does not remember well the fact that the Bush presidency was foundering in the summer of 2001, locked into a battle over stem cell research. President Bush had promised to oppose any federal funding for stem cell research, a position championed by anti-abortion conservatives. During the summer of 2001 the President said the federal funding issue would be resolved during his August 2001 vacation. The decision–to permit funding, but only as to 60 existing lines–was announced in a televised speech on August 9, 2001. On August 10, Counselor to the President Karen Hughes told an interviewer:
Several people told [the President], ‘This may be the most important decision of your presidency,’ or, ‘This is one of the most important decisions you will make. This has more ramifications than almost anything else you will do as president.’ A number of people made that point to him.
By the way, it was during this vacation that President Bush received the August 6, 2001 President’s Daily Brief, mentioning that Osama Bin Laden was determined to attack the United States. His immediate response was to tell the briefer: “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”
“Big” (and helpful to the President’s goals) was important to the Administration, and viewing an event through the “it’s big” prism will surely make it nothing less than epochal. President Bush had campaigned on a promise that his economic plans would not depend on the use of Social Security income to fund governmental operations. He even promised to establish a contingency fund for the purpose of protecting Social Security. For decades the government used Social Security receipts–the 12.4% of a portion of wages that you and your employer send the government–to fund deficits and had the Social Security Administration issue debt instruments that the government would have to repay in later years. In fact, when in President Clinton’s last two years in office the government ran surpluses critics argued that those surpluses still depended on the general fund using some Social Security income.
By the summer of 2001, barely eight months into the Bush presidency, tax cuts and a poor economy forced the Bush Administration to consider using Social Security income for general purposes. The President rejiggered his promise, adding as special conditions for using Social Security income a recession, war or national emergency. By the fall, with the recession, the war in Afghanistan and 9/11, he told Mitch Daniels, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, that “he’d hit the trifecta” and, tastelessly and for the purpose of getting laughs, he later used the line to entertain Republican party big-wigs during fundraisers.
There are also many reports, not seriously disputed, that as soon after the 9/11 attacks as the evening of September 11, the Vice President and others were focused on attacking Iraq, despite the absence of any evidence that Iraq was involved with the attacks. Again, the attacks served several purposes and, because they did, the Administration has no reason to downplay their significance.
The administration also saw a situation that lent itself to the goal of increasing the power of the President. Vice President Cheney had long focused on the need for an Imperial Presidency–my words, not his–after so much power was allegedly lost as a result of Watergate, the CIA scandals in the 1970s and other mishaps occurring between the Nixon and Clinton Administrations. In The Terror Presidency Professor Jack Goldsmith observed, about the President, the Vice President and the lawyers who advised them, that
[t]hey shared a commitment to expanding presidential power that they had long been anxious to implement. It is not right to say, as some have done, that these men took advantage of the 9/11 attacks to implement a radical pro-President agenda. But their unusual conception of presidential prerogative influenced everything they did to meet the post-9/11 threat.
So, knowing what we now know, how could this horrific event ever be something less than what it became? We’ll never know, but it’s not an exercise in futility to consider a world in which the events of 9/11 were handled differently. What if our leaders started by, first, acknowledging just how lucky our country had been, having avoided the terrorists who had attacked most of the civilized world for so many years? What if our leaders adopted a slogan first put forward in 1939 in England, and told us to “Keep Calm and Carry On”? What if, quietly, our leaders put into place programs to protect us and left the baggage–using the 9/11 attack to boost the Republican party’s electoral prospects and the power of the Presidency as an institution–behind? What if, instead of making the central focus of our lives the clash between good and evil, our leaders had focused our nation on making itself energy independent and ready to meet the economic challenges of a new century? [As an aside, and without attributing bad or dishonest motives–for all of my harsh talk about certain political leaders, I believe they generally act in a manner consistent with their perception of what will best serve our nation–can anyone imagine President Bush and Vice President Cheney, oil men for many years, appreciating how reducing our dependence on oil might benefit the country. Ya, ya, I know all about the foreign oil thing, which goes like “if we produced more, we wouldn’t need Muslim oil.” In global markets, however, oil is fungible, which means any producer, anywhere, will sell to the buyer who pays the highest price and any buyer, anywhere, buys at the cheapest available price. So, “drill, baby drill” may lower prices–more supply does that–but it does not determine from whom we buy our oil or, without our quickly finding and developing vast quantities of oil, allow us to stop buying from anyone. Furthermore, without a carbon tax to reduce usage, any price reduction would simply increase usage, as energy use increases when the unit cost drops, and decreases when the unit cost increases. Bottom line, a national “drill, baby drill” policy simply allows our nation to depend on oil for more years and, when available quantities decrease, makes us more dependent on foreign oil and less able to transition to alternative energy products.]
If we adopted a strategy that said “one incident can’t defeat us or change us,” might we not be stronger today. Certainly, no one can ignore the pain and suffering associated with the sudden loss of husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. But, when we let a bunch of “dead-enders” control our national policy, we do not serve our own interests! Frankly, and simply, we’re better than all that!