Don’t Call it War
George W. Bush has done a lot of dumb things in his
life but perhaps the most destructive was calling 9/11 an act of war. His
motivations are understandable, the political rewards considerable. François Hollande did the same thing after the recent mass murders in
Paris. After such a horrific crime, the people desire a strong response from
their leader, a sense that something will be done, but the long-term costs of
Bush’s rhetorical excess have
been considerable. By
exaggerating the danger of the attack on the World Trade Center, he played right into Al Qaida’s hands.
Imagine, if after 9/11, Bush had responded calmly, mourning the loss of 3, 000 fellow citizens but not indulging in apocalyptic musings. Before 9/11, suicide bombings were a relatively rare occurrence. It occurred to few disaffected youths that killing themselves while murdering the innocent was a good idea. Today, after being talked up in the media for more than a decade, thousands probably view self-immolation as their most attractive career choice.
I blame Bush. I was in New York that September day and it is worth noting that north of Canal Street, other than psychologically, ordinary life was utterly unaffected. Chinese restaurants still delivered, electrical power and water still available, supermarket shelves still stacked, the streets still safe, real estate prices still rising. Al Qaida’s attack was certainly shocking, but it wasn’t a threat to the lives of most Americans, and definitely not to the power of the American state.
By using apocalyptic language, George W. Bush gave al Qaida what it wanted. Theoreticians of urban guerrilla warfare, from the Tupamaros to Al Qaida itself have always recognized it is not the violent act but rather the response of the authorities that has political effect. The goal of terror is to force government repression, which the revolutionaries hope will make their cause more attractive. Blowing up the World Trade Center or the Stade de France is dramatic but ultimately ineffectual. It is our response to the attack that can work to the advantage of the terrorists. If they can cause us to fear Muslims, and our government to oppress them, ISIS has a better chance of creating the civilizational war it craves.
Had George W. Bush responded moderately, sensibly to 9/11, noting that this criminal act in no way lessened American power, that we did not fear the terrorists and saw them for what they were, a bunch of losers who could kill some of our fellow citizens but were in no way a threat to our way of life, he would have made becoming a suicide bomber a less attractive proposition. Instead, by exaggerating their danger, he allowed any depressed, unemployed uneducated Muslim boy with few prospects to picture himself as the star of his own movie, terrifying the greatest power on the planet. He need no longer be just some sad guy who can’t get laid; instead he can become a superman, an avenging angel that makes even the mighty quake in fear. By calling it war, Bush made terror seem more attractive, and so more likely.
These days, compared to most of human history, most of us live remarkably safe lives. The murder of hundreds in our generally tranquil cities horrifies us, as well it should and the press is happy to exploit our fascination. But by any sensible perspective, the Paris attacks and even 9/11 are ultimately trivial. 3,000 Americans died on 9/11. Out of a population of 330 million, that is less than 1 in a 100,000. In Paris 129 people were killed, out of a population of 12 million, an even smaller percentage. During the first day of the battle of the Somme, the British suffered 50,000 casualties. Never forget, more Americans are killed by peanut allergies than by terrorists.
I don’t mean to be flippant. Death, especially violent death is always a tragedy. Losing a loved one through war, accident or disease is unspeakably sad. Nonetheless, it would behove us to recognize that terrorism is not an existential threat, it isn’t even much of a threat at all. You and I will almost certainly die of something else. But by making a big deal about it, we do make terrorism more enticing and so more likely.