In the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, a strange consensus quickly emerged in Washington: this was just al Qaeda’s first homeland assault. There would be further attacks and most likely what was to come would be even worse — far worse.
With a sense of foreboding and determination we ventured into the third great era for America as world leader — what was briefly dubbed a New American Century.
First came the fight against global fascism which resulted in unqualified victory at the end of World War Two.
Then came the American-led Western alliance to halt the advance of communism.
Even if the collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t bring communism to an end, the end of the Cold War supposedly marked the dawn of a New Global Order in which America reigned supreme as the sole Super Power.
And if after the Cold War, a decade of globalization lacked the ideological clarity needed to satisfy conservative America’s sense of righteousness and moral purpose, or the military focus that would satisfy the Pentagon, all of that was to end with 9/11 as once again the United States assumed its role as world savior.
A president whose own sense of purpose had until then extended no further than his desire to continue a family tradition, was now fired up with a mission as he led the world in a struggle between good and evil.
Yet behind Bush’s apparent boldness was the confidence of a man making a very safe bet.
In response to the attacks the president and the political class across America made a simple calculation: if they were to overstate the threat posed by terrorism they could do so with virtually no political risk and potentially great political rewards. Indeed, the greater the exaggeration the less the risk.
At the same time an honest assessment of the threat posed by al Qaeda would be freighted with enormous risk.
That meant that a dishonest assessment of the threat posed by terrorism would also be a safe assessment.
If there were no further major attacks then this would be taken as the measure of a successful counter-terrorism policy; not a reflection of al Qaeda’s inherent weakness.
Bush immediately understood this and quickly declared war. This, the neocons rapturously declared, was Bush’s great “insight”: we’re at war.
Since we couldn’t be sure exactly where the enemy was located, then just to be safe, we assumed he was everywhere. So this wasn’t going to be just another war — it would be a global war.
America had defeated fascism and then communism and now it was going to take on a battle soon predicted to last for the rest of our lives: a long war against global terrorism.
With the smoke still rising from the ruins of the Twin Towers, no one had the guts to state the obvious: whatever threat al Qaeda might pose, it was surely minute compared to the Soviet nuclear arsenal during the Cold War or the nation-crushing military forces of Japan and Germany during World War Two.
If 9/11 had really been another Pearl Harbor, where was the amassed power that made it clear: this is just the beginning, there is much worse to come?
Asymmetric threats notwithstanding, could a few terrorist camps in eastern Afghanistan really constitute a credible threat to the preeminent military and economic power in the world?
Even if there was evidence that al Qaeda had diabolical ambitions, the evidence of its capabilities was much less impressive. When the long-predicted follow-up attacks emerged, they weren’t exactly attacks on America. Shoe bombers and underpants bombers could put hundreds of lives at risk but they didn’t really threaten a whole nation.
The cowards’ logic dictates, however, that no risk is too small and no security strategy too expensive. America could never become too safe.
The application of this logic not only opened the door to the creation of a massive new government bureaucracy, Homeland Security — along with its attendant terrorism industry — but it also made a war against Iraq look unavoidable.
An operational link between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda did not need to be conclusively proved; it would be sufficient to merely generate fear about such a possibility. We didn’t need to know that he had weapons of mass destruction; we merely needed to fear that he might soon possess them.
Again and again we were impressed to believe that possible threats were more important than imminent danger. Fear became the signpost to necessity.
And the political class, whether inside or outside government, bought into this idea with virtually no dissent.
By the time this strategic outlook could be seen to have bankrupted this country, everyone who had been promoting it would have already reaped their own political and material rewards.
If challenged — don’t you think you’ve spent too much? — the glib answer was bound to come back: who can set a price on the value of American life?
Well, tell that to the unemployed. Tell that to Americans who have vastly less reason to worry about al Qaeda than they do about paying their mortgage.
A decade after 9/11 how many Americans should be in any doubt that $6 trillion is too much?
“There’s going to be a terrorist strike some day,” warns former Bush administration official Richard Clarke. “And when there is, if you’ve reduced the terrorism budget, the other party — whoever the other party is at the time — is going to say that you were responsible for the terrorist strike because you cut back the budget. And so it’s a very, very risky thing to do.”
But note, very clearly: that is a political risk — much less a security risk. It endangers politicians much more than the people they represent.
“You can look, if you’re objective,” acknowledges Clarke, “at all of this money and all of this effort and say: What would have happened if we hadn’t done that? And in almost every case, nothing would have happened.
“It’s true that there hasn’t been another attack. It’s not true that all of this expenditure and all of these people have stopped it.”
Immediately after 9/11 the most frequently cited threat to America supposedly came from al Qaeda sleeper cells — an invisible enemy within, poised to strike again. Such sleeper cells either never woke up, or more likely never existed.
Instead, a different threat emerged — not one made up of a few fanatical Muslims, but instead filled with thousands of seemingly loyal Americans. Men and women who thought that they could help protect this country and get rich in the process. Like traders in a stock market for emotions, they realized that fear would never get over-priced.
As this country faces a much graver economic threat than any threat from terrorism, political boldness and courage are called for, yet none can be found. America’s political, military and commercial elites have spent the last decade betting on fear, investing in fear and consumed by fear.
In a culture of unchallenged fear, we find thus ourselves ruled by cowards.