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9/11 haunts national conscience

By ANN MARIE JAKUBOWSKI and KAITLYN RABACH | Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Twelve years after the World Trade Center tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, the United States’ foreign policy remains affected by the attack’s lingering effects and “oversensitivity to terrorism,” according to experts.

Michael Desch, Notre Dame political science professor and fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace, said the Sept. 11 attack was catalytic and disproportionate in its political impact.

“One of the real consequences you see is the willingness of the American public to do things in the name of preventing another 9/11 that they would otherwise not agree to, including two long wars overseas and some pretty significant restrictions of our civil liberties at home,” Desch said. 

The American public perceives the possibility of a repeated attack as much greater than it truly is, Desch said.

“I think the magnitude of the threat of international terrorism historically is very low, a lot lower than the probability of dying in a car crash or from domestic gun violence or other things like that,” he said. “And yet, we tend to remain fixated on the possibility of another terrorist attack in a way that’s out of sync with the real danger it presents to us.”

Daniel Lindley, a Notre Dame political science associate professor and a fellow with the Kroc Institute, said he sees two major ways the memory of Sept.11 still affects today’s politics.

“First of all, we see it in the general sensitivity to terrorism. We still spend a lot of money trying to combat terrorism, in particular through intelligence programs,” Lindley said. 

“Second, you see a huge amount of war wariness in America. The opposition to a Syrian strike right now is unbelievably huge on Capitol Hill, and that’s partly because of the wars we were involved in after 9/11.”

Lindley said the United States’ response to the attack in 2001 had major consequences, including becoming involved in two wars, hurting relations with some armed members of the Muslim world and “getting bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.” 

Marc Belanger, chair of the Saint Mary’s Department of Political Science, said American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan damaged relations with some of the United States’ allies and created problems for foreign policy with respect to the Middle East.

 “The tendency of the United States to expect others to accept our definition of the War on Terrorism, especially in the wake of the Iraq War, in particular, undermined the reputation of the United States globally, especially in the Arab world,” Belanger said. “You can see that right now with the nation dealing with a response to Syria and the use of chemical weapons.”

Belanger said he often wonders whether or not it is really possible to fight a war on terrorism. 

“You can fight a war on Al Qaeda, but can you fight against a political method?” Belanger said. “It is such an imprecise, slippery concept – a misnomer which has led to a lot of confusion.”

Desch and Lindley said the public’s tendency to overreact to any suggestion of terrorism has adversely affected today’s international relations policies.  

“I think the general proclivity has been to overreact, and I think it’s a function of the fact that 9/11 involved an event that was unexpected and surprising and certainly horrific in its consequences,” Desch said. “But not more horrific than other wars or other things that kill people or cause grievous injury. 

“Inasmuch as we overreact, the ghost of Osama bin Laden is smiling because a key objective of terrorism is symbolic, and the symbolic force of a terrorist attack is magnified when a target overreacts.”

Lindley said any act of terrorism, from 9/11 to the Boston Marathon attack, “wakes people up,” but not overreacting is crucial.

“It’s of course prudent to take reasonable steps against terrorism, as with any national security threat,” he said. “However, … we have to put things in historical perspective and be confident that the United States will survive almost any crisis.”

Belanger said attacks on the twin towers did impact the way the United States “faced the enemy.”

“For a time, there was this sense that with facing an enemy like this we have to take our gloves off and are going to have ‘to go over to the dark side’ like Cheney famously said,” Belanger said. 

Belanger said this notion undermined the legitimacy of the United States when it comes to human rights concerns.

“Certain methods used under the Bush administration made it harder for us to speak from a moral high ground as a country and made it harder for us to challenge human rights abuses in other places in the world,” he said.

Belanger said when a country of the United States’ prominence violates its own standards, the nation becomes vulnerable.

“9/11 took us down some different paths,” he said. “Some of the different methods we have used are in clear violation of human rights and that makes us vulnerable as a nation. I would not necessarily say this makes us vulnerable to foreign attack, but rather makes us vulnerable to losing our reputation as a nation with diplomatic good will.”

Desch said he would advise a “keep calm and carry on” approach to terrorism.

“For us, terrorism has been a source of panic,” he said. “The contrast between a sensible, reasoned assessment with prudent steps versus what we’ve done is quite striking.”