Twenty years later


Over the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk about Bush-era politics with smart, politically sophisticated people who happen to be much too young to personally remember 9/11 and its impact.

From those conversations, I think the thing about the event that’s hard to understand if you didn’t live through it is how much everyone changed their subjective assessment of the likely of major terrorist attacks. In August 2001, people didn’t worry about friends or family dying in terror attacks. The earlier World Trade Center bombing had happened, the US embassy bombings had happened, we had movies about terrorists, it’s not like it was some unknown thing — but it wasn’t live.

Then came 9/11 which was horrible, but also made people think that they’d been underestimating the odds of a major terrorist attack all along. I remember an incident in my dorm when someone had spilled powdered laundry detergent on the floor and everyone worried it was anthrax. Guys in hazmat suits showed up. It was Tide.

George W. Bush and his political allies spent a decade or more dining out on the idea that they “kept us safe” which only makes sense in light of that subjective revision. Nobody would say that Gerald Ford “kept us safe” from terrorism even though obviously terrorists killed far more people under Bush than Ford. “Kept us safe” didn’t just mean that 9/11 didn’t count, but that a rational person waking up on the morning of 9/12 would expect a lot of mass casualty terrorist attacks and the fact that those attacks didn’t occur showed that Bush’s policies were successful.

This is just a general issue in human cognition. Say you assess there’s a one in a million chance of something happening. And then it happens. Does that mean you were underestimating the odds all along or does it mean you just happened to witness something unusual? In normal life you’d say “wait and see” and keep improving your estimate as more data becomes available. But in the post-9/11 frenzy all kinds of things happened that were putatively dedicated to preventing future attacks. One of the FBI’s anti-terror tactics was keeping up a steady stream of what looks to me a lot like entrapment where the Bureau would essentially create terror plots and then foil them. The Bureau’s view is these actions preempted and disrupted attacks that would otherwise have taken place. Maybe?

To me the pandemic is an interesting contrast.

I read Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague in the mid-1990s and got very worried about emergent infectious diseases and pandemics. That worry stuck with me for decades. When I interviewed Barack Obama during his second term one of the things I asked was whether we shouldn’t rebalance our security spending away from terrorism and toward worrying about pandemics. But to be honest, I worried less about pandemics in 2019 than I had in 1999 because after living through SARS, MERS, and a couple of Ebola outbreaks I thought maybe the world had this in hand.

Covid-19 really has me scared. Not about Covid at this point, but about Covid-2027 or whatever the next thing is.

In addition to all the controversial stuff that happened over the past twenty years that people will debate forever, 9/11 led to some very straightforward reforms. The hijackers boarded the planes with box cutters, which wouldn’t be allowed today. Hijacking protocols at the time urged passengers not to resist, assuming hijackers would simply take the plane somewhere else. By later that same day the heroes of Flight 93 realized we needed a new approach for a new era. Today’s cockpit doors are much harder to break into. These changes are so uncontroversial that we don’t talk about them anymore. But they mean you literally cannot do the thing that the killers did twenty years ago. On pandemics, I don’t think we’ve banned box cutters or hardened cockpit doors. In terms of social response rather than a new consensus like the one that developed on Flight 93, we’re further than ever from a collective understanding of what we should do or how we should evaluate risks.

So that’s me, my subjective risk-assessment is way up. But I don’t get the sense that’s true in general. There’s an ongoing Covid Culture War but the assumption — the exact opposite of the assumptions of fall 2001 — seems to be that this will just be water under the bridge and not something we need to worry about on an ongoing basis. The me of twenty years ago was caught up in what looks, in retrospect, like a kind of hysteria and I was wrong. I hope I’ll be wrong again, this time about pandemics. But I worry.