Post by Dylan Matthews, Campus Progress

The nation’s initial response to 9/11 was one that could have easily come from an eleven-year-old. Let’s hope we’ve moved beyond the need for war as a response to terrorism.

9-11 tribute

The Tribute in Light is an art installation of 88 searchlights placed next to the site of the World Trade Center to create two vertical columns of light in remembrance of the September 11 attacks. (Flickr/macten)

I was in my sixth grade newspaper class when I heard that a plane had hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t until the second plane struck the other tower that my middle school sent around notes to teachers telling them to make the announcement. One plane, I suppose they had reasoned, could have been an accident and perhaps not worth causing panic. Two was something altogether different. After a brief and, in retrospect, fairly odd warning from my teacher against assuming it was Muslim terrorists that were responsible, we flooded into the school library to watch madness unfold on the school’s 50-inch TV as Dan Rather informed us that the Pentagon had been hit as well.

Everyone one of us, old and young, has of these stories. For people my age—that is to say, those of us currently in college or late high school—the impression of that day has been particularly formative. Before that day, this country we lived in was not one that fought wars. We were barely sentient for the Gulf War, if alive at all. Our country was not one that was attacked on its own soil.

This was the first truly huge event of our lives, and its sheer scale overwhelmed all but the most immediate details. We were too overwhelmed to wonder or care whether al-Qaeda or Iraq or a Timothy McVeigh-like domestic terrorist had planned the act.

That evening, President George W. Bush addressed the American public, “Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution.” My eleven-year-old self understood his logic and took the next step. Big acts, Bush was saying, necessitate big responses.

I’m now a nineteen-year-old, and like other Americans eight years after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001 I must be mature enough to accept that the sheer scale of the event didn’t necessitate such a huge and disproportionate response. Growing up, in this context, means accepting that we can’t fight terrorism through the invasion and occupation pattern we are employing in Afghanistan and, until recently, Iraq—it must be done through the normal, even boring channels of law enforcement and diplomacy.

To some degree, we have learned this already. Few serious people dispute that occupying Iraq has been, if anything, counterproductive to averting another attack. The problem was not simply that the invasion of Iraq was outrageously tangential to the goal of combating Islamic terrorism. The problem was that the goal itself was misguided.

The tremendous shock of 9/11 obscured the fact that compared to current threats like nuclear proliferation—and especially compared to world-historic menaces like Nazism and Soviet communism—terrorism simply does not constitute a great threat to American security. As John Mueller of Ohio State University has argued, if terrorism continues to claim the number of lives it has for the past twenty years or so, it is a trivial threat to American lives in comparison to automobile accidents and is roughly equivalent to the number killed by lightning or allergic reactions to peanuts.

This is not to say that the loss of life on 9/11 or elsewhere is anything less than devastating, just as a death by lightning strike is a tragedy for the aggregate victims and their families as well. But our government has not devoted billions of dollars to promoting lightning safety. Nor should we devote billions more—let alone occupying entire countries—for the purpose of averting a similar number of lost lives.

Of course, such an assessment depends on rejecting the deeply human impulse to respond when attacked. Military action is wholly unnecessary for avoiding another terrorist attack; to acknowledge this is to subordinate a primal need for catharsis to an almost painfully dispassionate analysis. As we saw in the aftermath of 9/11, the latter force rarely wins. I harbor no great optimism that our policymakers will suddenly end this obsession—it has been a slowly evolving process over the last eight years. But at the very least, I hope that today we realize that the correct response to tragedy not to have the scale of the event determine the proportion of the response. Instead, resisting the urge for war and accepting subtle shifts in everyday security is how we deny a victory to the attack’s perpetrators.

For now, let’s keep the cockpit doors of commercial jets locked, go through extra security at airports, and generally do the small things that keep us slightly safer. But let’s all recognize that the eleven-year-old me was wrong. The scale of the 9/11 attack should not have pushed us haphazardly into war. Hopefully we have learned that lesson.

Dylan Matthews is a staff writer for Campus Progress and a sophomore at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter.