By Anne Crowell, ’12
Last Tuesday’s Clarke Forum event, a lecture by Philip Zelikow, was very fitting for the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Although I was unable to attend the actual event, I was glad that the Clarke Forum recorded the event so that I wouldn’t miss this discussion, because this topic has had an impact on all Americans for nearly half my life. As two students, Nina Tirado and Jonathan Baez, shared their stories of living through the 9/11 attacks as kids in New York, I couldn’t help remembering my own experience in sixth grade on that fateful Tuesday. I can’t imagine what it was like to be in New York or Washington and to be so close to the people whose lives were lost in the attacks, but even at my school in Charlotte, North Carolina, students were evacuated throughout the day because the city was home to three major American banks and there was fear that we could be the next target. I know I speak for many in my generation when I say that it is hard not to let that climate of fear define one’s life.
That said, I hesitate to describe the event as a memorial, because although there was certainly that dimension at the beginning of the event, once Zelikow began his lecture, his main point was actually about moving forward rather than dwelling on this moment in history. He stated that before 9/11, we did not see al Qaeda as a major threat, and perhaps didn’t take that terrorist group seriously enough. Now, however, Zelikow believes that we are taking terrorism too seriously, and as a result we are giving terrorists power over us that they should not have. We are, in fact, letting it define not only our individual lives, but our American foreign policy. According to Zelikow, there will always be a certain terrorism threat level out there, but the question is what we need to do about it. And in many cases, he argues, the US ought to be doing less about terrorism. We’re fixated on an injury that was done to our country ten years ago, and it has dictated our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, our manhunt for Bin Laden, and countless other actions the US has taken over the past ten years.
Though I will never forget 9/11, nor will any American who experienced what happened on that Tuesday morning ten Septembers ago, I can’t help thinking that Zelikow is right. We’ve shown remarkable strength as Americans in the face of this disaster, and to some extent we’ve overcome it and moved on. But, as a minor example, go to any airport in America, and look at the heightened security level compared to, say, Western Europe, which also faces similar terrorist threats. The EU is starting to say it’s no longer necessary to take your shoes off to go through security (and, as I know from experience, Americans receive weird looks when they do it anyway out of habit), while the US is implementing full body scans. Isn’t this exactly what James Madison was afraid of when he said in 1798 that “the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad”? While I think it would be wrong to argue that the danger from terrorism is not “real,” I do agree with Zelikow that we are continuing to respond to this danger with a response that is, as he puts it, “not proportional.”