Is it over yet?
A steadily increasing crescendo of 9/11-related retrospectives reached a closing act yesterday. While the power of “10” obviously carries powerful meaning when used to measure anniversaries, I can’t help but think that much of the focus on the specifics of that day and the unfolding of events thereafter should have taken place years earlier so as to begin thinking of the future.
Fellow bloggers on HLS Watch have done an admirable job highlighting the deficiencies in popular coverage of this anniversary, as well as reflecting on and tracking the solemn ceremonies marking the occasion. At some point, perhaps beginning today, it may be appropriate to consider the questions: so what and what comes next?
Or put more delicately, did life really fundamentally change for everyone ten years ago? Should we and are we ready to move on?
I do not wish to insult those who lost their lives on 9/11 or in the wars that followed, nor the memories cherished by their loved ones. Yet this massive outpouring of attention for one particular event that happened 10 years ago stands in stark contrast to other national traumas. For instance, according to the Washington Post’s George Will, 10 years after Pearl Harbor there was comparatively little national attention paid to the anniversary of the attack that brought the United States into a world-spanning conflict that required the full mobilization of the nation and cost hundreds of thousands of lives.
This is not to suggest the loss of that day should not be honored. The trauma was all too real, and scars on the national psyche will remain for some time to come. Those living in New York City and Washington, DC in particular live under the constant dark clouds of the threat of additional attacks.
Yet outside of those personally touched by the attacks and a very narrow slice of our society that works and lives in the military, intelligence, law enforcement, and other security-related fields, how much did life change because of 9/11? A few additional inconvenient security measures at airports and borders aside, the daily lives of most citizens would be similar today if the attacks had never occurred.
So was 9/11 an inflection point in U.S. history or simply an event large enough to focus the entire nation’s attention on a threat that had existed for years? The World Trade Center was attacked in 1993 with the intent of toppling one tower into the other. U.S. embassies were bombed and a warship almost sunk. A small group of self-radicalized American citizens attacked a symbol of the federal government in Oklahoma City. Until 9/11, the threat of terrorism was persistent but not deemed large enough to reorient our entire strategic outlook. Were we under-reacting eleven years ago or overreacting this past decade? Can we find the sweet spot?
What comes next?
The predominate memes since 9/11 have fluctuated with time: the worst is yet to come, most likely in the form of WMDs…obviously Iraq had a hand in this attack…a worldwide jihadist movement is arrayed against the U.S….it is only a matter of time before IEDs become a staple of the homeland threat……planes, planes, planes…the Mumbai active shooter attack is the wave of the future… “homegrown” terrorists, self-radicalized individuals, and lone gunmen are the primary threat….
It seems at time that the government is unable to play a game of multi-dimensional chess. Attention must be focused on the risk du jour and not spread among simultaneous possibilities. Homegrown terrorism and complex plots originating overseas involving the use of especially destructive technologies cannot exist at the same time. Or at least so it seems listening to security officials pontificate about what keeps them up at night (does anyone in Washington sleep?).
Hurricane Katrina reminded us that we also live under the specter of catastrophic natural disasters. Homeland security came to rhetorically embrace the concept of “all hazards.” This added another level to the already complex chess board. It is easy to separate a terrorist threat from a hurricane projected to impact the U.S., but practically how does society realistically prepare for intentional man-made, technological, and natural threats? Is this a question that cuts to the idea of resilience? Are we already much more resilient than we give ourselves credit for? New Yorkers do not run screaming from terrorist threats anymore than Floridians panic about tropical storms. Perhaps we are trying to solve problems that do not exist while ignoring the issues that deserve attention. Or maybe we have been lucky and the fragile nature of modern society has yet to be really stressed.
These questions are not new and have been asked in various forums across multiple disciplines. Now that we have given past events due consideration, is it time to seriously think about the future?