September 11, 2003: Why America Is Still Asleep

Gerald Posner’s recent book Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11 has been widely hailed as an insightful analysis of our inability to prevent the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Reading Mr. Posner’s book and the press reports about it, one would think that all we have to do to prevent future acts of terrorism is to analyze our intelligence failures and patch up the systems that (purportedly) failed in the months leading up to September 11, 2001. Get the FBI and CIA to share information and all will be well. Catch and prosecute the criminals and we can once again feel immune.

Intelligence sharing and federal prosecutions are all well and good, but short of truly understanding the goals and tactical capabilities of the current terrorist threat, little will be gained from piecemeal, retrospective solutions. In fact, no matter how accurate Mr. Posner’s (and a myriad of others) explanation of the problems leading up to the actions of al Qaeda on September 11th, focusing only on the disconnects that led to our failure to prevent the September 11th attacks seriously misses the mark. America is still very much asleep when it comes to understanding the threat of terrorism, and merely patching up the system will not help us to achieve what must be our nation’s primary goal: security, not immunity. We cannot protect all of America all of the time. But we can protect those elements of our society— public and private— that enable us to function.

It was crucial to focus after September 11th not simply on the horrors pictured on television, but on trying to interpret what we saw. Some of us understood, for example, that, for al Qaeda, the attack had been a very partial success. Thus, although the diversionary attack in New York was successful, the two flights aimed at the White House and the Capitol did not reach their targets and the plan for decapitating the U.S. government had not succeeded. Because al Qaeda’s long-run goal is to “defeat” the United States in order to establish a purified Islamic caliphate, having failed to achieve its goal in a single stroke implied little more than the need for a period of adjustment and planning for successive actions. Even more critically, the leadership of al Qaeda now knows that the United States has not yet understood the real message of September 11th— that there can be no more business as usual until we achieve a clear measure of operational security— and that it therefore still has the opportunity to achieve its objectives.

“No more business as usual?” With the horrors preempting the television schedule, cable news, newspapers, radios, and day-to-day conversations, how could the real message of September 11th have been something as ordinary, as mundane, as “no more business as usual?”

One of the central themes of modern American life is that “the business of America is business.” The leadership of al Qaeda has given clear evidence that they understand not only the centrality of business to the United States, but also that the defeat of the United States and the rebuilding of the Islamic Caliphate depend on their ability to disrupt or destroy the American economy. After all, it is American business that is responsible for the output of the nation’s public utilities, supplying materiel to our armed forces and security personnel, the production and distribution of food, maintenance of the nation’s transportation infrastructure, and virtually everything else that we, as Americans, need to sustain our lives and our way of life. The attacks on September 11th may have resulted in the loss of lives and the destruction of property but, at its core, the attacks were aimed at the ability of the United States to continue to sustain business, either by crippling what many thought was the center of world trade or killing America’s leadership-in effect, producing chaos.

While President Bush sounded a call for national resolve in his address to Congress following September 11th, the Administration has preoccupied itself since then with waging the War on Terrorism abroad. There has been no call for national sacrifice or a concerted effort to establish new national priorities that would allow for the coordination of international trade, manufacturing, communications, emergency response, education and research. Instead, the call was for the nation to maintain business as usual.

Thus far, the War on Terrorism has been waged through externalized strikes aimed at terrorists and those that harbor them. Domestic response, on the other hand, has been focused on law enforcement, prosecution, and improving the training and preparedness of first responders (now the principal responsibility of the new Department of Homeland Security). Rather than calling for the nation’s participation in the War on Terrorism, the American people were told to do their part by simply continuing to shop during the holiday season! The critically needed changes in the nation’s attitude towards terrorism, from one of prosecution, clean-up after the fact, and military preemption of terrorist actions to one of domestic preparedness and security, has been conspicuously absent. All in all, the United States has maintained the business-as-usual posture that plays to the strengths of potential terrorists.

It is true that our national needs in the War on Terrorism differ from those that were useful on December 7, 1941. It would be pointless for tens of thousands of our young people to appear at enlistment centers, asking to serve. Our training facilities could not possibly handle the influx, and the technological battlefield requires far more specialized training and experience than boot camp can provide. Furthermore, we probably have sufficient raw materials, production facilities, and energy to wage the fight so that we need not resort to rationing and extensive recycling. What is not different, however, is our need to address the questions of priorities and coordination that, ultimately, were at the heart of the nation’s response to the Axis threats.

As we see it, in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11th, the nation needed to accept that many aspects of ordinary life would need to change in order to overcome the threat of terrorism. A “war footing” includes shifts in industrial priorities, the allocation of manpower to the military and domestic security, the focus of education and training programs, and a host of the rules and regulations that are the basis of everyday life. We do not suggest the United States should have mobilized circa 1941 to meet the terrorist threat. But we do need a shift from business as usual to deal with the threat of massive dislocations and disruptions to the foundations of our economy and society. Finding a middle ground between total (and totally unnecessary) mobilization and the ineffective inaction implicit in business as usual will not be easy. It will require us to set priorities and make some definitive— and potentially morally difficult— choices.

The United States must defend the integrity of our political, social, and economic systems. But this will never be done successfully if the heart of our domestic response is merely an easy continuity with our pre-September 11th habits and policies. Two years after, must we suffer another hard blow before we take action to protect the key “commons” that, if disrupted, might cripple our economy and destroy both lives and our way of life? Before we create an orderly system for spending on security (both public and private), such as Security Impact Statements?[1] Before we realize that the key actions must be taken not by the Federal government alone, but also by state and local authorities? Before we realize that such actions will be ineffective unless the private sector, including key industries such as communications, chemicals, and transportation, act as well? Before we realize that we must reconstitute our education system to reflect the national need for security awareness and security skills? This is the true national agenda of Homeland Security: No more business as usual.

 

Notes:

[1] Foreign Policy Research Institute Wire, “From MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) to MUD (Multilateral Unconstrained Disruption): Dealing with the New Terrorism,” /articles/2003/02/mad-mutual-assured-destruction-mud-multilateral-unconstrained-disruption-dealing.