Our Response to 9/11 Ten Years Later

Our Response to 9/11 Ten Years Later

We reacted to 9/11 with vigor and great expense, with huge commitments to foreign wars, domestic surveillance and a new intelligence structure. The few people who questioned the cost of our response in cash, life or liberty were branded unpatriotic.

In the heat and urgency of the moment understandable mistakes were made. But time has passed and we have had the opportunity to study our enemy. It is now the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and it is a good time to reflect on how appropriate our response to terrorist threats is.

From the beginning of the Republic until the cold war’s symbolic ending, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we faced an enemy that had his own territory to protect and fought us head to head.

But then the world changed. The bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the attack on the USS Cole were early signs of a new kind of threat. But as with Pearl Harbor in WW II, it took a catastrophic attack on US soil to alert us to the determination and nature of our new enemy. An enemy that neither protected territory nor fought in massed formations.

Once awakened we did what we do best and threw money, men and materiel at the problem. But our swift response to an unfamiliar enemy led to errors.

Mistakes are unavoidable but continuing to make the same mistakes is unacceptable. To correct our errors we need investigation by a group with no axe to grind, another 9/11 Commission.

The original Commission provided solid analysis of the disastrous events of 9/11 because the politicians on that commission were no longer running for office. Its report of causes and recommendations was widely accepted as being objective and thorough.

But now we need to analyze our response and its costs. Costs that include the lives of 6,000 war fighters and more than 2,000 civilian contractors; incalculable wounds both psychological and physical; $1.24 trillion in direct expenditures on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; $55 billion a year for homeland security; a loss of freedom and liberty under the Patriot Act and even a laundry list of inconveniences from boarding a plane to getting into an office building.

The cost to America of terrorism on 9/11/01 was calculated in millions/billions, the cost of our response is being calculated in billions/trillions. Is it really the best use of all that money? Is terrorism really a bigger threat to the US than our crumbling infrastructure, our chronic unemployment, our sliding academic ranking, our huge safety net costs, our deficit and our ludicrously expensive medical system?

And even though we are spending a fortune on our response are we short changing our soldiers? Are we treating their psychological injuries? Are we ensuring they find work on their return? Are we taking enough care of the health of the first responders at the World Trade site, who worked for weeks in a toxic cloud?

The truth is that the vast majority of Americans will die of something other than terrorism. But that is not how the Government allocates our resources. Homeland security’s budget is over $55 billion but the National Institute of Health’s budget is less than $32 billion.

The problem arises because budgets are decided by politicians who must get reelected. Counter-terrorism is an easy sale. Terrorist attacks are like sharks attacks, they are very rare but they grab the headlines. Sudden and catastrophic events are much scarier than chronic problems. Which is why some people, who are scared to fly, have no problem driving even though driving is deadlier than flying.

Cuts in Sacred cows like Social Security and Medicare are now on the table. We must add an examination of all our defense expenditures including our anti-terrorism budgets.

We must protect ourselves against terrorism, but the cost of that protection cannot be unquestioned.