Nine years after 9/11, can anyone doubt that Al Qaeda is simply not that deadly a threat? Since that gruesome day in 2001, once governments everywhere began serious countermeasures, Osama bin Laden’s terror network has been unable to launch a single major attack on high-value targets in the United States and Europe. While it has inspired a few much smaller attacks by local jihadis, it has been unable to execute a single one itself. Today, Al Qaeda’s best hope is to find a troubled young man who has been radicalized over the Internet, and teach him to stuff his underwear with explosives.
I do not minimize Al Qaeda’s intentions, which are barbaric. I question its capabilities. In every recent conflict, the United States has been right about the evil intentions of its adversaries but massively exaggerated their strength. In the 1980s, we thought the Soviet Union was expanding its power and influence when it was on the verge of economic and political bankruptcy. In the 1990s, we were certain that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear arsenal. In fact, his factories could barely make soap.
The error this time is more damaging. September 11 was a shock to the American psyche and the American system. As a result, we overreacted.
An overreaction in response to national shock may reasonably describe what happened, but it doesn’t explain what made America so susceptible to the shock or so ripe for such an overreaction.
America suffers from a cultural deficit that is largely a product of geography. Cultural self-awareness depends significantly on the ability to understand ones own culture as it appears from the outside, yet most Americans swim inside the fishbowl of this culture with only the vaguest sense of what lies beyond. This profound insularity makes America perpetually vulnerable to global shocks of any kind.
The planners of the 9/11 attacks seemed to grasp a core dimension of this culture: that television is the primary medium that shapes a cohesive American identity. The attack of the World Trade Center thus became an attack on America by being televised.
As a culture that understands itself through television, America grasps images more readily than ideas.
The collapsing Twin Towers meant all sorts of things. It meant that the tallest buildings in New York City turned out to lack the structural integrity they might have been expected to have. It meant that security procedures in American airports were wholly inadequate. It meant that successive US governments had operated with a false sense of impunity as their policies bred hostility across the Middle East.
Yet few of these practical or abstract meanings registered as clearly in American consciousness as did the imagery of American power suddenly made impotent.
A crudely simplistic response — they made us look weak so now we’re going to show ’em we’re strong — thus won national support with barely more than a squeak of dissent.
“They” became a category into which all manner of “enemies” could be haphazardly squeezed: al Qaeda, Islamic extremists, the Taliban, Muslims, Arabs, enemies of Israel, anti-Americans, haters of freedom. Understanding who they were, mattered less than being convinced that they were out to get us.
Having signed on to the idea that war was unavoidable, few questioned a concomitant assumption: that a war of supposed necessity would — for the average American — necessitate no personal involvement.
We could watch, cheer, even march against it, or be utterly indifferent, because the function of this war was as much as anything else to perpetuate the anesthetized state of consciousness that sustains the American way of life.
“Go shopping” was not a throwaway remark from a stumbling president. It was a religious injunction to a population that had been trained to value material comfort more than life itself. The shock of 9/11 might have provoked an overreaction but it also proved to be a shock that could quite easily be absorbed; a shock that far from waking up America, barely interrupted its sleep.
Where else could the most massive expansion in government seen in recent decades have so been readily supported by people who profess an abhorrence for big government?