In a recent editorial on 9/11 I read, the author argues that that War on Terror reaction to 9/11 is justifiable both financially and militarily. His main supporting arguments are that (1) al Qaeda (and, presumably, other faces of ‘radical Islam’) are viable threats, (2) the excesses of the PATRIOT Act keeps American citizens safe, and (3) the cost of these is not a major factor in the current financial crises. I want to look at all three of these claims and argue that they are at best distractions from the post-9/11 reactions.
First, however, I want to contextualise the 9/11 reaction. While the current mantra is about ‘Remembering September 11′, I should point out that we once remembered December 7 (whose 70th anniversary is this year) and POW-MIA soldiers and veterans. I’m not saying that we should forget 9/11 but rather that we will forget it, just as we have forgotten Pearl Harbor. The main difference between these two attacks is that Pearl Harbor was accomplished by a nation-state (i.e. Japan for the readers who have truly forgotten the event) while 9/11 was performed by a guerrilla group without ties to one (or more) nation-state(s).
6 August 1945
The reaction to Pearl Harbor was the awakening of the ‘sleeping giant’ that was the American military and the entry of the US armed forces to WW2. By early 1945, the European theatre was complete (the Yalta Conference occurred in February and Hitler died on 30 April) and the Pacific theatre was brought down to Japanese shores by mid-1945. Here is where the American ‘overreaction’ is most visible: with the Pacific side reduced to an inevitable defeat of Japan, the US dropped two atomic bombs in Japan to hasten the end and, according to the arguments, prevent further casualties for the Allies.
I say ‘overreaction’ in scare quotes not because I am arguing that the atomic bombs were excessive (that’s a separate, unrelated issue I don’t wish to hash here). Rather, the ‘overreaction’ was the normalisation of the use of this force. The decision to use atomic bombs in Japan was a very serious and difficult decision, yet the aftermath of this first use made it an acceptable option. One of the reactions which surfaced after 9/11 was to drop atomic bombs in Afghanistan and wherever else it was believed al Qaeda was hiding. This should be a very worrying response because it is the desire to use the most destructive weapons we possess without concern of the consequences out of spite or revenge.
In the case of the reaction to 9/11, this made ‘radical Islam’ (and the general perception of Islam according to at least some major news media outlets) into much greater threats and gave them much more power than what they had. Prior to the post-9/11 reaction, groups like al Qaeda were largely ignored as the fringe extremists they were. However, the force and rhetoric used against ‘radical Islam’, especially the rhetoric which made the post-9/11 reaction a religious reaction (i.e. the Christian West against the Muslim Middle East), pushed the fringe extremists into a more popular position. In short, it was because of the 9/11 overreaction which made al Qaeda a viable threat and not the desperate actions drawn together into the event that was 9/11.
26 October 2001
The American reaction to 9/11 created a need for the appearance of safety. This came through in multiple laws passed by Congress. While there is an image of safety created through agencies like the TSA and additional measures enacted through the PATRIOT Act, these are illusions. We are not any safer than what we were before. As acts like the failed shoe bomb have shown, the TSA fails to keep transportation safe. This is because the focus is on known, specific identifications of potentially harmful weapons and the imagined suspicions aimed at racial and physical features. It fails to take into account that people like the 9/11 hijackers did not look out of the ordinary. They looked like normal people carrying normal items onto the plane. While people feel safe going through potentially harmful radiation in full body scans (which can be highly misleading and inaccurate) and having restrictions on how much shampoo and toothpaste they can carry onto the plane, the fact is that they’re not. The next attack (if there is one) will be committed by people who fly under the radar of the TSA’s specifications and profiling because the next terrorists will be smarter than the TSA (just as the shoe bomber was even though his bomb failed to detonate). We are not safer and yet we have given away liberties and even reason for the illusion that we are safe.
14 September 2008
Once the ‘War on Terror’ in Iraq degraded into an occupation and criticisms in America were mounting, the focus was shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan. Government appropriations through 2011 total $1.3T (source). Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each month for these wars. I do not wish to discuss whether or not the operations are necessary, but it cannot be denied that they have enormous costs both directly (in terms of federal budget spending) and indirectly (in terms of inability of government to stimulate the economy, create jobs, etc). I agree that the ‘War on Terror’ as part of the post-9/11 overreaction is not directly responsible for the financial crises we have seen develop since 2008. However, the expenses on the ‘War on Terror’ were directly responsible for preventing the financial crisis and meltdown.
Without giving attention to the corporate world and the impending doom, the government was just as unable to regulate effectively and steer the economy properly as it was unable to identify a terrorist attack and prevent it in 2001. In other words, what the US government is excellent at is focusing on a single problem, but this also means that the government is poor at noticing other problems as they arise and before everything goes south. There is where the problem lies: the reaction to 9/11 is excessive because the costs and attention given to it has provided nothing of substance in return, only illusions, empty promises, and debt. The real concern should be the rampant imperialism and authoritarianism that the US has exhibited against both foreign countries and its own citizens all in the name of safety, security, and freedom.