If you have not read Assessing the Terrorist Threat by Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, stop, read no further, download, and carefully consume the 43 concise yet comprehensive pages. Below I will focus on a secondary –tertiary? — aspect of the report.
Bergen and Hoffman write, “al-Qaeda is believed to lack the capability to launch a mass-casualty attack sufficiently deadly in scope to completely reorient American foreign policy, as the 9/11 attacks did.” They characterize the 9/11 attacks as “catastrophic.”
How were the 9/11 attacks catastrophic? Bergen and Hoffman are too skilled as writers to offer pedantic definitions. Their meaning is nonetheless reasonably clear. Among other outcomes, the complete reorientation of American foreign policy in response to the attacks transformed a disaster into a catastrophe.
In previous posts I have offered a — very pedantic — definition of catastrophe. The term originates in ancient Greek drama and signals a reversal of fortune and a sudden shift in the plot. Our expectations are upended. Nothing is the same after the catastrophe.
In reviewing the failed Christmas Day underwear bomb, Bergen and Hoffman argue, “If Umar Farouq Abulmutallab had succeeded in bringing down Northwest Airlines Flight 253, the bombing not only would have killed hundreds but would have had a large effect on the U.S. economy, already reeling from the worst recession since the Great Depression, and would have devastated the critical aviation and tourism business. It also would have likely dealt a crippling blow to Barack Obama’s presidency.”
Notice how the potential consequences depend on social interpretation of the event. Why would the bombing of an airliner have the effects projected? Bergen and Hoffman offer projections regarding how media and public would make meaning of the event and adjust attitudes and behavior to that meaning.
When the cause is natural or even accidental a plane can crash and its consequences are limited largely to the families of those on the plane. Bergen and Hoffman make a (reasonable) assumption that a successful terrorist attack amplifies economic and political consequences. That is certainly the terrorists intent.
The authors do not, however, make much more of this line of argument until their penultimate paragraph:
It is also important to acknowledge that how Americans respond to terrorist attacks can influence the worrisome trend by terrorist groups to radicalize and train recruits to carry out less sophisticated operations on U.S. soil. If any attack can succeed in generating significant political and economic fallout, then there is a greater motivation for undertaking these attacks. Alternatively, terrorist attacks that have limited potential to inflict serious casualties or cause disruption become less attractive if Americans display a greater degree of resilience by being better prepared to respond to and recover from these attacks. Since as a practical matter it is impossible to prevent every terrorist attack, the United States should be working in any event to improve the capacity of its political system, along with citizens and communities, to better manage how America deals with such attacks when they occur.
How we respond determines if an event is catastrophic or not. How the survivors interpret the event is crucial. We are, ultimately, the authors of the plot. We are the heroes of the play. Our orientation, our decision, and our collective action determines how the plot will conclude and its meaning.
Today is the anniversary of a resilient decision. 2490 years later we still live with the consequences of a choice made by survivors.
The entire city and its port had been evacuated. Tens-of-thousands of women, children and elderly were parceled out to islands, neighboring towns, and mountain hide-aways. Families were separated. Nearly every able-bodied male — from 14 to over fifty, slave and free — was with the fleet or in the army.
From their wooden ships the men of Athens could see smoke and flame rising from the Acropolis, a sure sign the Persians had vanquished the small band of priests, priestesses, the blind, lame, and stubborn who had barricaded themselves atop the sacred hill.
The Spartans and King Leonidas had fallen at Thermopylae six weeks before. The invaders had swept through Northern Greece. There was no repeating the miracle at Marathon. Athens fell before the seemingly irresistable onslaught.
On the evening of September 22 a decision was made — and then unmade — to abandon Athens entirely and make a final stand at the Isthmus of Corinth. Even in the unlikely event (if you accept Herodotus) the Isthmus could have been held, such a decision would have utterly changed human history.
The decision to stay and fight at Salamis emerged from a mix of fear, realism, strategy, trickery, and desperation. Acts of courage on each side were fully matched by cowardice and dumb luck on every side.
Until the morning of September 23, Xerxes had been the hero. Then in the narrow strait between the sandy shores of Salamis and Mt. Aigaleos the plot suddenly shifts and Thermosticles — conflicted, corrupt, creative and probably irreplaceable — wins the day and cracks the door for what we now know as Western Civilization.
A huge Persian army still threatened and winter was fast approaching as the people of Athens returned to their ruined homes and desecrated temples. Somehow they came to see this as a great opportunity. Over the next two generations there was an efflorescence of architectural, philosophical, literary, and scientific creativity. The foundations of our civilization still stand on the ruins Xerxes left behind and what the Athenians decided to do in response.
On this day twenty-five centuries ago the Battle of Salamis set the stage. The resilient choice was made at the broken threshold and empty hearth of each bereaved Athenian.
What will we choose?
For further consideration:
Yesterday the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs received testimony from Secretary Napolitano, FBI Director Mueller, and Michael Leiter, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. I have had trouble accessing the Committee site — too much demand? — but you should be able to find the prepared testimony and perhaps video of the actual testimony at http://hsgac.senate.gov/
On Monday the Congressional Research Service released a report on American Jihadist Terrorism. The public can access thanks to the Federation of American Scientists.
In March the Congressional Research Service produced good overview on International Terrorism and Transnational Crime. This is also available from the Federation of American Scientists.
UPDATE: About 2:00 Eastern today (Thursday) Bruce Hoffman posted a summary of yesterday’s testimony, the CRS piece linked above (American Jihadist Terrorism), and the BPG report co-authored by Dr. Hoffman and Mr. Bergen. It is a helpful crystalization of the core message of the important report (rather than the more tangential aspect on which I have focused). Please see Dr. Hoffman’s post at The National Interest: Where’s the Beef?