Michael Barkun: September 11th after Ten Years

Ten years after the September 11th terrorist attacks, author Michael Barkun considers what has come out of the United States’ responses and reactions not just to those initial attacks, but to all instances of terror over the past decade.  Read an interview in which Barkun separates the perception from the reality of terror from an earlier UNC Press Blog entry. -Alex

The real lessons of September 11th have become apparent only over time.  We have learned things we were only dimly aware of before.  We now know the country has enormous resilience.  In that sense, 9/11 was a special kind of test.  It constituted the first direct, significant military attacks upon the continental United States since 1812.  Indeed, part of the shock was that the attacks suddenly made vulnerable a population that had grown up, generation after generation, with a belief in security that other nations could only envy.  No one could know with certainty how Americans might react when actually attacked.  When the attacks did come, they responded with an initial shock that quickly turned into energetic resolve.

We learned that national crisis could produce an astonishing degree of cohesion, morale, and willingness to provide aid.  A strong case can be made that the magnitude of the response was critically enabled by television.  The New York attacks occurred largely during real-time television coverage that quickly became continual and national, almost to the exclusion of other programming.

Although the phrase “virtual community” has become a cliché, such a community on a national scale did exist in the days after September 11th.  Strangers spoke to one another on the street, people treated one another with exaggerated courtesy, and many of the routines of ordinary life were suspended.  The same behaviors had also been observed immediately after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the first event of national significance that received saturation television coverage.  Now, with the addition of cable news channels and the Internet, the sense of immediate national bonding was intensified.  An enormous, far-flung population was converted into vicarious victims of the 9/11 attacks and, like victims of natural disasters, they saw themselves as members of a community of shared fate with a joint responsibility to render aid to one another.

But perhaps the most important lesson involved the nature of fear: which fears are real and which are overblown.  Long before Osama bin Laden was killed, it was clear that Al Qaeda was a waning force, objectively and in our minds.  Much of the fear associated with it revolved around the expectations that it would employ weapons of mass destruction, a belief reinforced by the anthrax letters episode in October 2001, even though few really believed that the perpetrator was connected with radical Islam.  Nonetheless, the specter of jihadi terrorists wielding WMD remained strong, especially in official circles, despite compelling evidence that, like the Mumbai attackers, they were far more likely to employ conventional weapons.

It was becoming clear that a battered Al Qaeda is less a cohesive network than an organizationally fragmented collection of franchises and wannabes.  They could sometimes act viciously, but mostly in their own neighborhoods.

With the passage of time, the threat of religious terrorism can be seen in its true proportions as other developments have jostled for attention: the rise of China as a great power, the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran, the “Arab Spring,” and, above all, the economic crisis out of which we are still slowly climbing.

Next to the near collapse of Western economies, the infrequent attacks of jihadi terrorists appear relatively minor from a strategic standpoint.  There is little terrorists can do to threaten the strategic position of the United States.  That they and their activities should be suppressed goes without saying, but it is time to recognize that they do not pose a survival threat to this country.

Nonetheless, the immense psychological shock of the attacks resulted in decisions taken in haste that have created a large, unwieldy counterterrorism bureaucracy, including the Department of Homeland Security, NORTHCOM, the National Counterterrorism Center, and Director of National Intelligence.  Little attention was paid to how they would relate to one another.  In fact their parts have frequently overlapped, resulting in coordination and turf problems not unlike those that bedeviled counterterrorism prior to 9/11.  Despite undoubted triumphs, such as the killing of bin Laden, the post-9/11 apparatus appears significantly less nimble than its architects had hoped.  For example, the Northwest Airlines 2009 Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was known to various government agencies, but the information they held was never brought together effectively.

Here, then, is the final lesson, learned late: Major institutional changes made quickly in the shadow of crisis are unlikely to result in policy made and executed efficiently.  Instead, they will produce bloated structures that may replicate the very problems they were meant to solve.

Barkun - Chasing PhantomsMichael Barkun is professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and is a former FBI consultant in domestic terrorism cases. He is author of six books, including Chasing Phantoms:  Reality, Imagination, and Homeland Security since 9/11 and Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement.