The attacks of September 11, 2001 did more than bring shock and grief to our nation -- they fundamentally changed us. They removed us further from our liberal traditions, which had once considered undue government surveillance as a violation of civil liberties, while a previously unimaginable concept like torture suddenly became a topic worthy of "debate."
But more than desensitize us to an overbearing government, 9/11 altered the course of America's strategy as a superpower. From 2001 on, the United States would focus the bulk of its political and military attention on fighting Islamic terrorism wherever it manifested itself. But was such a rebranding of America's purpose necessary?
Those who argue that it was will point to the fact that the United States has not been attacked since 2001. Yet we are forced to remember that ever since the advent of modern terrorism in the late nineteenth century,* terror attacks on U.S. soil have been exceedingly rare. From this vantage point, the establishment of the Bush administration's bureaucratic-military superstructure may have been a solution in search of a problem.
From the moment that President Teddy Roosevelt first declared a war on terrorism in the wake of President McKinley's assassination in 1901, until the attacks of 9/11 one hundred years later, there had only been four successful, mass-casualty terror attacks on U.S. soil. Four. This, of course, includes Timothy McVeigh's 1995 attack on an Oklahoma City federal office building, which killed 168 people. Only two of the four incidents involved international terror groups: the 1920 Wall Street bombing, which killed 35 people, and al-Qaeda's 1993 World Trade Center attack, which killed six.
Terrorism, in other words, had always been an exception, not a rule. So rare in its occurrence that the conservative American Council on Science and Health puts the risk of dying in a terrorist attack at zero. Compare this with the higher chance of dying due to a failure to use carbon monoxide detectors (1 in 1.5 million), or the chance of succumbing to gun violence (1 in 10,000), or perishing from an alcohol related accident or illness (1 in 3,500).
Despite the minute probability of death-by-terrorist on American soil, however, spending on homeland security and counterterrorism has reportedly reached $1 trillion since 2001 -- and this figure excludes the cost of invading and securing Afghanistan and Iraq, which were certainly part of a post-9/11 overreaction.
Supporters of the exorbitant spending will claim that the rarity of terrorism does not give us a full picture of its importance. Terrorism may be rare, they will argue, but it is of vital strategic consequence. But is it really so? Is it worth restructuring our entire defense and intelligence infrastructure in order to prevent terror attacks?
Going back to the establishment of complex forms of government and standing armies, great powers have always invested heavily in their defenses. From the fielding of the English longbow, to the building of the legendary Spanish Armada, to the manufacturing of the Ottoman canon, effective military weaponry has been developed by states with the sole purpose of defending and expanding their influence at the regional and global levels. But their intended targets have always been other states -- great powers capable of unleashing destruction upon entire societies and ways of life.
Such was the threat posed to the United States by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and by Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II. And such might be the threat that one day emanates from a resurgent Russia or an aggressive China, the leaders of which have already developed the aircraft carrier-"killing" Hsiung Feng 3 missile, and their own stealth fighters, all while making significant, well-publicized strides on the cyber warfare frontier.
America's attention and investment, however, seems to be stubbornly placed on counterterrorism measures and post-9/11 conflict zones, not rising powers such as China. The latest Quadrennial Defense Review, submitted to Congress by the Obama administration in 2010, mentions success in "counterinsurgency, stability, and counterterrorism operations" as one of the Department of Defense's key strategic missions -- listed second only to the ability to "Defend the United States and support civil authorities at home." Efforts at combating roadside bombs have been singled out as a priority for this, the largest and most powerful military in the world.
What is puzzling about this set of objectives is that the very terrorism we fear is the embodiment of infinite weakness. Few U.S. adversaries worth discussing are so feeble as to rely almost exclusively on Kamikaze-style suicide attacks against soft targets. If al-Qaeda were a country, it would rank below Luxembourg in its ability to wield deadly force.
At the same time that America has pumped resources into a distracted set of terrorism-related priorities, the government has divested from efforts to ensure the longevity of our republic. NASA's budget, already miniscule, has been slashed, while spending on science, math and education in general has been dismal. All this while massive deficits, fueled by an unsustainable combination of low taxes and high spending, have now become the norm. This negligence creates structural deficiencies for our nation, which will limit our ability to keep up with the economic and scientific growth necessary to compete in a dangerous international system.
For all the emotional closure that Osama bin Laden's demise has given our country, it is hard not think that al-Qaeda's supporters may have gotten the last laugh. It was, after all, Osama and his fellow jihadists who helped bring down the Soviet Union with American weaponry and money through a war of attrition in Afghanistan. Who knew that we would follow in the Soviets' footsteps and allow ourselves to chase an enemy that is formidable only in our heads.
* For a thematic overview of the history of modern terror, see David C. Rapoport, "The Four Waves of Modern Terrorism," in Audrey K. Cronin and James M. Ludes (eds) Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2004.