Did America overreact to 9/11?
This is a question that is much in the air today. Consider, as one example, the essay that recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times written by David A. Bell, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins. The title of the piece is "Putting 9/11 into perspective," and its by-line reads: "The attacks were a horrible act of mass murder, but history says we're overreacting." But does "history" in fact tell us any such thing?
Simply put, Bell's argument goes as follows: There have been wars in the past, global wars, in which millions have died: 50 million, for example, in the Second World War. On the other hand, if you compute the number of Americans who died on 9/11, and "even if one counts our dead in Iraq and Afghanistan as casualties of the war against terrorism," this yields only 6,500 dead Americans. Then, as a way of putting this figure into perspective, Bell says that "we should remember that roughly the same number of Americans die every two months in car accidents."
There is a bit of history in this argument, though the number of people who died in World War II is not exactly a trade secret of historians; but where exactly is Bell's logic? For example, let us suppose a man comes into your house and shoots your favorite dog in cold blood. You explode in rage and fury, whereupon a calm Professor Bell appears to inform you that during WWII whole families and their dogs were brutally murdered, or that in America thousands of dogs are run over by cars each year. Now both of these facts are true. No point in trying to deny them. But does either of these facts put "into perspective" the wanton killing of your beloved pet? Upon hearing Bell's recital of these indisputable facts, would you immediately say to him: "How right you are, Dr. Bell, and how wrong I was to fly into a rage over the killing of a single statistically insignificant dog. Thank you for putting the matter into perspective for me."
If a madman chops your hand off, will you be appeased if he tells you, "Well, be grateful. My previous victims, and there have been hundreds of them, had both their hands and both their feet chopped off. You are lucky, indeed, that I was so merciful." Would his words persuade you to take a detached view of your detached hand?
When a person or a group suffers an unprovoked attack, their first thought is seldom, "Let's put this into perspective." Instead, there is an adrenaline rush of outrage and anger, and this automatic reaction has been programmed into our species by what Charles Darwin called the universal struggle for existence. The famous Fight or Flight response has been designed to assure our long term survival. One may well die fighting or perish by fleeing; yet both responses are far more conducive to survival than waiting for a professor to put the attack into "historical perspective" four years after it occurred. It may be true that others have suffered even more outrageous attacks than the one you have suffered. But what's that to you? The only attack that concerns you is the attack that you must immediately defend yourself against. You must respond now, or never.
Professor Bell argues that the 9/11 attack did not genuinely endanger our national survival, and that the terrorists lack the capacity to "threaten the existence of the United States." Now if by this Bell means that they cannot kill us all, or even more than a few thousand at a time, then history seems to have proven him right—at least, so far. But what Bell overlooks is that in the struggle between human groups, it does not require a threat to the survival of the whole group to activate the Fight response. Far from it—groups begin fighting for reasons that strike outsiders as trifling or absurd. Is this irrational? To professors ensconced in the comfort of a university no doubt, but not to those who have to exist in a dog-eat-dog world.
The inmates of any jailhouse know that even mildest acts of aggression must be instantly and firmly challenged. If you are a newcomer and another inmate demands that you give him your candy bar, the worst thing you could possibly do would be to try to put the incident into perspective. You cannot say, "Well, it's only a candy bar, after all. No big deal," because, in this context, your candy bar is a big deal. It means everything. If you hand it over on demand, then you have also handled over your dignity. You have thereby informed not only the inmate making the demand, but all the other inmates watching you give into his demand that they too can all walk on you at any time. They too can take from you anything you have. They too can make you their flunkey or slave.
Of course, in defending your candy-bar, you may have to risk your life. But it is absurd to say that you are risking your life "only" for a candy bar when you are in fact risking it to maintain your autonomy and independence. The danger in such a situation is not overreaction, but, paradoxically, the failure to overreact.
The same principle applies to groups, tribes, and nations. If any group wishes to preserve its dignity and autonomy, there will be times when it is forced to act like the inmate defending his candy bar. In terms of a cost analysis, this kind of "overreaction" will seem utterly irrational. Is the candy bar really worth risking your life over? But to you, the refusal to take this risk involves a loss that cannot be measured by statistics—namely, the loss of your status as an independent moral agent that others will be careful not to push around or walk over.
Professor Bell wants us to believe that history tells us that America overreacted to 9/11. What history tells us, on the contrary, is that men have repeatedly gone into brutal and bloody wars over the moral equivalent of mere candy bars. The casus belli of the Franco-Prussian war was the fatal Ems telegram. The First World War began with the murder of a Crown Prince. The American Revolution began with a tea party.
It is far too early to be invoking the august judgment of history on America's response to 9/11; it may well turn out that the USA, instead of overreacting, failed to react strongly and forcefully enough. 9/11 as an act of unprovoked aggression is without parallel, and those who celebrated it throughout the Muslim world did so with complete impunity. In the eyes of our enemy, our failure to respond immediately and indiscriminately to the attack has not been chalked up to our humanitarian zeal, but to our weakness. Like the inmate who hands over his candy bar without protest, those who were watching us for our reaction to 9/11 may be drawing conclusions about us that we did not intend to convey to them, and that are not in our long-term interests.
Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.