officials, the media, and the public that is probably matched only by the
attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Since it is the very nature of terrorism not
only to cause immediate damage but also to strike fear in the hearts of the
population under attack, one might say that the terrorists were extraordinarily
successful, not just as a result of their own efforts but also in consequence
of the American reaction. In this essay, I shall argue that this reaction was irrational
to a great extent and that to that extent Americans unwittingly cooperated
with the terrorists in achieving a major goal: spreading fear and thus
disrupting lives. In other words, we could have reacted more rationally and as
a result produced less disruption in the lives of our citizens.
There are several reasons why one might say that a huge reaction to the
9/11 attacks was justified. The first is simply the large number of lives that
were lost. In the absence of a shooting war, that 2,800 Americans should die
from the same cause strikes us as extraordinary indeed. But does the sheer
size of the loss of life warrant the reaction we saw? Clearly sheer numbers do
not always impress us. It is unlikely, for example, that many Americans remember that, earlier in 2001, an earthquake in Gujarat, India, killed approximately
20,000 people. One might explain the difference in reaction by saying
that we naturally respond more strongly to the deaths of Americans closer to
home than to those of others halfway around the world. But then consider the
fact that, every month during 2001 more Americans were killed in automobile
crashes than were killed on 9/11 (and it has continued every month since
as well). Since the victims of car accidents come from every geographical area
and every social stratum, one can say that those deaths are even “closer to
home” than the deaths that occurred in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
It may be harder to identify with an earthquake victim in Asia than
with a 9/11 victim, but this cannot be said for the victims of fatal automobile
One might say that it was the malice of the perpetrators that makes
the 9/11 deaths so noteworthy, but surely there is plenty of malice present in
the 15,000 homicides that occur every year in the United States. And while we
have passed strict laws favoring prosecution of murderers, we do not see the
huge and expensive shift in priorities that has followed the 9/11 attacks.
It seems clear, at least, that sheer numbers cannot explain the response
to 9/11. If more reasons were needed, we might consider that the actual total
of the number of 9/11 deaths seemed of little consequence in post-attack reports.
Immediately after the attacks, the estimated death toll was about 6,500.
Several weeks later it was clear that fewer than half that many had actually
died, but was there a great sigh of relief when it was learned that over 3,000
people who were believed to have died were still alive? Not at all. In fact, well
after it was confirmed that no more than 3,000 people had died, Secretary
of Defense Donald Rumsfeld still talked about “over 5,000” deaths on 9/11.
So the actual number seems to be of less consequence than one might have
We should remember that fear and outrage at the attacks are only the beginning
of the country’s response to 9/11. We now have a new cabinet-level
Department of Homeland Security; billions have been spent on beefing up security
and in tracking terrorists and potential terrorists; billions more have
been spent supporting airlines whose revenues took a nosedive after the attacks;
the Congress was pulled away from other important business; the National
Guard was called out to patrol the nation’s airports; air travelers have
been subjected to time-consuming and expensive security measures; you can
probably think of a half-dozen other items to add to this list.
It is probable that a great lot of this trouble and expense is unwarranted.
We think that random searches of luggage of elderly ladies getting on airplanes
in Laramie, Wyoming, for example, is more effective as a way of annoying elderly
ladies than of stopping terrorism.
We might have accomplished something if we had been able to treat the
terrorist attacks of 9/11 in a way similar to how we treat the carnage on the
nation’s highways—by implementing practices and requirements that are directly
related to results (as in the case of speed limits, safety belts, and the
like, which took decades to accomplish in the cause of auto safety)— rather
than by throwing the nation into a near panic and using the resulting fears to
justify expensive but not necessarily effective or even relevant measures.
But we focused on 9/11 because of its terrorist nature and because of the
spectacular film that was shown over and over on television, imprinting forever the horrific images of the airliner’s collision with the World Trade Center and
the subsequent collapse of the two towers. The media’s instant obsession with
the case is understandable, even if it is out of proportion to the actual damage,
as awful as it was, when we compare the actual loss to the loss from automobile
Finally, our point is that marginal or even completely ineffective expenditures
and disruptive practices have taken our time, attention, and national
treasure away from other matters with more promise of making the country a
better place. We seem to have all begun to think of ourselves as terrorist targets,
but, in fact, reason tells us we are in much greater danger from our friends
and neighbors behind the wheels of their cars.
Recently Asked Questions
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