On September 11, 2001, our national security state failed to protect us – but ordinary citizens sacrificed their lives to protect the seats of this state on United 93 and emergency responders and ordinary individuals gave their lives to help evacuate buildings. On September 11, the only effective responses were local and often spontaneous.
Yet the Bush administration took a different set of lessons from that day. They looked at what went wrong instead of what went right. The lessons they chose to take from this day have shaped the past seven years.
- A more aggressive foreign policy. The first lesson the Bush administration took from the attacks on September 11 was that we needed to demonstrate our strength and that if we were “over there” they would not come “over here.” They believed that September 11 taught us that our foreign policy was too defensive – and needed to become more aggressive. The immediate steps they took – military action, economic pressure, and diplomatic pressure to prevent any of our enemies from having a sanctuary – were overdue and necessary. But they believed we needed to be more aggressive – and pursued a preventive war with Iraq (which they deliberately mislabeled as a preemptive war) and sought to transform the Middle East through elections and democracy. According to Bob Woodward, their first instincts after the attacks on September 11 were to attack Iraq – despite the lack of evidence linking it to the attacks.
- Removing constraints on law enforcement. The second lesson the Bush administration took from the attacks was that if law enforcement had more power and civil liberties constrained them less, then they could have prevented the attacks. Although it was clear that the laws regarding warrants, surveillance, and intelligence-gathering needed to be updated to keep up with the times, the measures passed in the immediate aftermath of September 11 were broader.
What the Bush administration learned on September 11 was that we needed to strengthen the national security state to prevent another attack. They believed that a more aggressive national security state could have prevented the attacks.
Yet, they failed to learn any lessons from the only attack that was foiled that morning. While the national security apparatus was in shambles and scrambling to figure out what was going on, they were rescued by a group of citizens with no authority or special information. They were informed of what was going on by friends and family who had learned their information from a free press; the cell phones they used were on an open system – and those who called did not worry that they were being monitored by the state; the people gathered together – as citizens do in a time of crisis – and acted communally and determinedly. Yet in the aftermath of the attacks, the president seemed to deliberately play down the one element of our society that had prevented an attack – the sense of volunteerism, of community, of active engagement. He said we should shop.
Our national security state should attempt to prevent another September 11, but while doing so, it must be careful not to undermine the very aspects of our society that actually functioned on that morning. The most profound lesson that we did not learn on September 11 was this:
The federal government cannot be everywhere. The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people is the American people themselves – properly informed.
[The conclusions of this piece are inspired by Stephen Flynn.]