TCS Daily

Second Thoughts

By Lee Harris - September 11, 2003 12:00 AM

On the second anniversary of 9/11, it is natural to ask the question, Are we safer now than we were two year ago? And no doubt, both today and in the days following, there will be any number of thoughtful and well-informed attempts to provide a reasonably cogent answer to this question, either in the affirmative or in the negative, depending, for the most part, on whether one supports the Bush administration or opposes it.


The plain and painful truth, however, is that no one is really in a position to answer this question, except those who may or may not be plotting the second 9/11. None of us, outside the inner circle of Al Qaeda and associated terrorist organizations, can reliably assess either the chances of such an event happening, or envision the particular form in which it might appear. The catastrophic terror of 9/11 has happened once, and it is entirely possible that it may never happen again. Or it may happen twice, close together; or three times separated by decades. Or it may occur as you are reading this column. The inescapeable truth of our post-9/11 world is that none of us can be sure.


But today there is one big truth of which we can all be sadly certain prior to the next 9/11, and it is this: Whereas the first 9/11 brought our nation together, the second 9/11 may well tear it apart.


Let me explain why this is so.


For most Americans, 9/11 was the proverbial bolt out of the blue. It was an utterly unimaginable event, none that any of us had rehearsed in our repertoire of standard nightmares. Our collective psyche was shocked and stunned. True, there existed in the United States a very small handful of people who could reasonably have said, "I told you so;" but they were voices crying in the wilderness.


But this will not be true for the next 9/11. For while the details of such a catastrophe might surprise us, its original shock value has already been anticipated by virtually all of us. We may well be stunned the second time, but we will not be shocked at the very thought of such an event. We will say to ourselves, "Yes, another 9/11." We will have a word for it this time, a mental compartment in which to lodge it, a standard of comparison by which to fathom its destruction and depravity.


The difference here was one that was expressed by the English director Alfred Hitchcock in an interview with the French director Francois Truffaut. Shock, Hitchcock said, occurs when the movie viewer is watching a group of men sitting around, and a bomb explodes in their midst; suspense occurs when the same movie viewer is watching the same group of men, knowing full well that a bomb is about to explode in their midst.


The first 9/11 was shock; what follows, and will continue to follow until the second 9/11, is suspense. And this is a psychological truth that has many untoward and disturbing consequences for American policy in the post-9/11 world. For the fact is that no administration, no matter how clever or resourceful its anti-terrorism policy may be, can ever hope to end the intolerable suspense that is the legacy of 9/11. Only an act of terror like 9/11 itself can do that; and then only to start again a whole new cycle of suspense. But at no time in the foreseeable future can the president of the United States come before the American people and declare: "We have nothing more to fear. There will be no more 9/11's."


The reason for this is self-evident: no matter what anti-terrorism policy this or any future administration may select to pursue, this policy will always be at the mercy of a small gang of terrorists possibly employing nothing more consequential than a single piece of plastic explosives, or a box-cutter directed at the right neck.


This is not to say that certain policies might be more effective than others in checking the threat of another 9/11; but this effectiveness could only be demonstrated by the reduction in the average rate of 9/11 events; and here again we run into a dead end. For how on earth do you decide whether our country is experiencing a smaller or larger number of 9/11 events than usual when there has only been one such event?


How, for example, do we verify the Bush's administration claim that the fight for freedom in Iraq will reduce the possibility of another 9/11 at home? Like any other program, it may succeed in eliminating the men, material, or opportunity to carry out such acts, but however successfully it may accomplish all of these desirable goals, other 9/11's will forever remain a possibility.


But the same is true of any alternative proposals that might be suggested by the Bush administration's opponents.


For here we have the inherent difficulty of democratic politics in our post 9/11 world. If there is another 9/11, it will not matter to the American people in the least how many 9/11's the administration in power has been able to prevent by its anti-9/11 policy -- all that will count in their minds is the one that got through.


This is a truth that the Bush administration must face. Even if its policy in the reconstruction of post-war Iraq is a success without parallel, it is no assurance that America will not see another 9/11. Indeed, it is possible to imagine such events occurring even if a success in Iraq leads to similar successes in the rest of the Islamic world.


But, once again, this is a truth that all administrations will have to face as well -- Democratic, Republican, or third party. There is no magic bullet against the kind of catastrophic terror that came to us two years ago today, and there will never be.


This is not a counsel of despair, but a counsel of humility. Because none of us can know for sure whether any particular policy will prevent another 9/11, we must be willing to forgive in advance the failure of any administration, including those we don't like, to prevent the unpreventable. Or, at the very least, we must be willing to restrain the desire to say, "I told you so," or "If only you had listened to me."


But in order to achieve such cognitive sobriety as a nation, two conditions must be met.


First, the administration in power must never claim to have a magic bullet against terrorism, because such a claim is inherently indefensible and open to the most brutal form of refutation. This is why the Bush administration must exercise extraordinary care in making the claim that we are fighting the terrorists in Iraq in order to keep from fighting them here. For the moment this statement is interpreted to mean that our actions in Iraq are a surefire method of preventing another 9/11 at home, then the line has been crossed between realism and dangerously wishful thinking.


Second, those who wish to attack the administration in power must be willing to confess their own lack of magic bullets, and not mislead the American people into thinking that they have solutions that are somehow exempt from the inherent uncertainty of any policy directed against the reoccurrence of catastrophic terror on our shores. This means that Bush's Democratic opponents must begin by disavowing any claims to have some obviously right answer, simply because there are none.


It is natural that some of us will believe that one policy will be more effective in the war on terror than another; but the naturalness of this belief must be deliberately tempered by a cautionary skepticism toward our own pet theories, and a continual recollection of the fact that no one can obtain certainty about when, where, how, or indeed even if it will happen again.


Judge Learned Hand used to quote a remark that Oliver Cromwell made to his opponents before a battle: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think that ye be wrong." For Judge Hand, such an attitude was an essential prerequisite of healthy democratic politics; and this is a truth that has never been more apposite than it is today.


The greatest damage that Al-Qaeda could possibly do to us is not to destroy our buildings or even to murder our people; it is to lure us into abandoning our sense of national unity at the very time we are most in need of it. 9/11 was not our fault, nor the fault of our leadership, of either party. Nor will the next 9/11, if it should come, be our fault, or the fault of those who might happen to be in power, and again of either party.

If this be pessimism, then I submit that it is a necessary and salubrious pessimism; for it is our only defense against the temptation to turn on each other in the event of another 9/11. Because we are all equally uncertain, we must all be prepared to be admit that our own judgment might well have proven just as fallacious and misleading as the judgment of those upon whom fell the cruel responsibility to make undecidable decisions and to embark on inherently unpredictable courses of action. For though, unhappily, none of us may not know for sure what we should do, we can all be absolutely positive about what we shouldn't do, and that is, we cannot fall apart. For if we in the United States falls apart, who in the world will put us back together? 


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