Failure of the Year 2001

Terrorism.

Failure of the Year 2001

The optimist would say that something good comes out of every tragedy. The events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax attacks, and the ongoing war on terrorism have dominated world news like no other events in recent history. From a narrow perspective, the World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks and subsequent anthrax mailings can only be described as “successful.” After all, the terrorists, by and large, reached their intended targets, received unparalleled publicity, and caused an unprecedented amount of terrorist-related loss of life, not to mention physical, emotional, and monetary damage.

But in the big picture, 2001’s terrorists have already failed miserably on countless fronts. Most obviously, their attacks touched off a worldwide war on terrorism, which so far has led to the ouster of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the death of at least one Al Qaeda leader (Mohammed Atef), and the arrest or detention of hundreds of terrorists around the globe. The attacks also unified an increasingly divided American people, and set off long overdue re-examinations of U.S. national security, the public health system, and immigration & naturalization policies.

As the events of September 11 unfolded, the U.S. people (not to mention most of the rest of the world) looked on in shock and horror. But perhaps Americans shouldn’t have been surprised. In the Phase 1 report of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century (dated September 15, 1999), the commission’s first conclusion includes the following statement: “States, terrorists and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.” The commission—which addressed U.S. national security issues for the first quarter of the 21st century—went on to say, “For many years to come Americans will become increasingly less secure, and much less secure than they now believe themselves to be.”

2001 was the year Americans were startled back to reality. Past terrorist attacks against U.S. interests abroad didn’t hit close enough to home to force changes in national security. Yet, the nature and magnitude of 2001’s civilian-oriented atrocities—both the events of September 11 and the anthrax letters—forced the United States to re-evaluate countless practices and policies. In just a few months, the nation has overcome years of complacency.

Case in point: There is now a visible security presence at many high profile locales, airport security is on its way to a major overhaul and defense needs at nuclear facilities are being re-assessed. The financial system—which incidentally found Y2K-induced backup systems invaluable in the weeks following September 11—and stock exchanges have suddenly become more serious about fully redundant operations. Meanwhile, the deficiencies of the public health network are being evaluated and new plans are being implemented to respond to biological and chemical attacks. The immigration and naturalization system is now under scrutiny and U.S. airspace and waterways are being more closely monitored by the Air Force and Coast Guard. In the Internet world, security is being re-evaluated and the feasibility of a secure government communications network is receiving consideration. Finally, hundreds of terrorists and immigration violators have been arrested and/or detained. The list of overdue responses to a high stakes 21st century world goes on and on.

Naturally, it’s impossible to ignore the scope of damages incurred in recent months. First and foremost, there’s the tragic loss of thousands of innocent civilians at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, in Pennsylvania, and through anthrax exposure. The airline industry was so badly shaken that an urgent federal bailout was necessary, and the threat of terrorism could undermine the airline and travel industries for years to come. It’s also obvious that the spate of anthrax-tainted letters has done nothing to help an already laboring postal system. Beyond that, the physical, economic and psychological consequences of the various attacks are simply too many for any one person to conceive.

Yet, in light of all that’s taken place these last few months, U.S. resilience has been nothing short of remarkable. The American people have come together, demonstrating their patriotism, offering financial assistance for the many victims, and overwhelmingly supporting President Bush and the war effort. The economy has held up as well as can be expected—especially when you consider that the attacks took place during a recession—and [as of December 10] the Dow Jones Industrial Average is now hovering around pre-attack levels. Perhaps, most importantly, Americans are making strides in overcoming what now seems to be a short-lived psychological victory for the terrorists. In the weeks after September 11, people reconsidered and often altered their daily routines. Today, most have resumed their normal activities.

Of course, few people are naive enough to think that the threat of further aggression has receded. Indeed, the breakup of the Taliban and fragmentation of Al Qaeda might increase the likelihood of conventional terror attacks. But Osama bin Laden and Co. seem to have misjudged the resolve of the American people. In essence, Al Qaeda awoke a sleeping giant. In its attempt to rattle the United States and its government, Al Qaeda has only strengthened America and its resolve. Furthermore, bin Laden’s publicly expressed belief that America was a ‘paper tiger’ turned out to be misguided. Basing his expectations on past U.S. response—especially the actions of U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993—bin Laden must have envisioned a feeble or shortsighted response. Either that, or he was emboldened by history, which told him that a foreign superpower cannot win a war in Afghan territory. But a mission in Somalia evokes a less determined reaction than an attack on American soil, and overrunning the inhospitable terrain of Afghanistan with ground troops is incomparable to using air superiority and high tech equipment to systematically eliminate small groups of terrorists and Taliban soldiers.

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