The six key lessons of 911

By Steve Kirsch

Bush has said that 911 changed everything for him. The lesson he learned is that we are not safe on our own soil. Since it is his sworn duty is to protect the US, his conclusion is that we must proactively fight terrorism and countries that support terrorists to prevent this from ever happening again. This justifies our war on Iraq. Most Americans believe him.

Unfortunately for all of us, Bush got it wrong. In fact, he got it totally backwards. He has completely misinterpreted "the lessons of 911." If we want to prevent another disaster like 911, we must remember the following six key lessons that the 911 terrorists have taught us:

Disarmament of foreign powers is not sufficient because our own weapons can easily be used to attack us
911 proved that terrorists do not need to purchase any weapons of mass destruction from any foreign power. They proved that they can use materials that can be readily obtained in the US. Therefore, the US cannot prevent such attacks by disarming Iraq, the axis of evil, or any other country. Had we disarmed every single country in the world, it would not have prevented 911 because the terrorists used US-made and US-supplied weapons. So disarmament of foreign powers is not a credible solution to this new threat.

Increasing homeland security is not sufficient because there are way too many holes and we still can't even plug one of them after years of trying
After every terrorist incident involving the use of aircraft, we increase security. Yet the attacks still happen. We do it over and over increasing security every time and every time we find that there are holes that can be exploited. 911 proved increasing airport security didn't work. So we increased it again after 911. Yet, a few weeks ago, my local TV station was easily able to pass a lead lined bag without inspection past security at San Jose and San Francisco airports. So if we haven't been able to solve that problem after 911, it is doubtful we ever will. But the point of 911 is that terrorists know where the security weaknesses are and will exploit them. So increasing security is not a credible solution to this new threat.

Attacking governments who support terrorists is not sufficient because it is not unfriendly governments who are the threat today; it is now the people from friendly nations who are attacking us 
911 proved that we are vulnerable to people from friendly countries want us to change our behavior. bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers are from Saudi Arabia. The others were from Egypt. These countries have denied any links to Al Qaeda. Therefore, attacking governments who we believe are sinister is not a credible solution to this new threat because it is not governments of unfriendly nations that are the problem; it is the people of friendly nations that are attacking us. Even if we had completely obliterated every "unfriendly government," 911 would still have happened. In fact, it would be much more likely to have happened. Let's also not forget that the terrorists were trained by US citizens in the US to fly the US planes that attacked us.

We are too dependent on foreign oil
911 showed it is the money we are paying for foreign oil that is funding the terrorists who attacked us. 911 showed that we are at risk from nations who control the supply of oil. We should be focusing on ways to reduce demand to solve this problem.

The root cause of the attack is that people don't like us overseas because of our hegemonic foreign policies, not because they are jealous of us
If we want to stop the attacks, we must address the root cause. Specialists on bin Laden such as Milton Bearden, who headed the CIA's covert operations in Afghanistan during the 1980s when bin Laden was leading Arab volunteers to fight ''jihad'' there, noted that bin Laden's original and still preeminent goal is to rid the US military presence from Saudi Arabia. World opinion of the US has gone down since the attacks, not because people are more jealous of us, but because of our foreign policies. 911 is our "canary in the coal mine;" it is a warning sign that our international reputation is bad and that we must move to correct it or face more incidents. That means working cooperatively with other countries, not against them. We must be seen as a friend and not an enemy or a threat. Yet today, anti-American sentiment, along with hatred of all things American, is increasing, not decreasing. President Bush is viewed as no more likeable than Saddam Hussein in polls in Germany and Austria. A new poll by the Washington-based Pew Research Center indicates that the number of Europeans with a favorable image of the US has plummeted, even among the coalition of the willing. In Italy, only 34% view the US positively, compared to 70% in 2002. In Spain, only 14% have a favorable image. Even in Eastern Europe, support for the US has dropped from 80% to 50% in Poland.We are clearly moving in the wrong direction. We are expending a lot of time, money, and resources to make things worse, instead of better.

The Bush administration seems to have never learned the lesson of  "Playground Psychology." Most children learn pretty quickly that if you constantly bully others and try to use force to influence their behavior towards you, eventually those others will retaliate - in many cases this leads to an escalating cycle of violent behavior. Children who go on to be successful very quickly learn that the way forward is to work hard and build trusting, mutually beneficial relationships with others. Children who don't learn this usually don't get far in life. The comparison here is obvious.

The 911 attacks were a predictable result of US/Western foreign policy over the past 50 years. Money and might has been used to support regimes which suppress freedom in parts of the world where stability is a requirement in order to ensure continuity of western energy (i.e., oil) supply, and what happened is probably mainly a result of this.

The biggest threat to our world may be in our own reactions, and not the incident itself
The attack of 911 was a tragedy. But the devastation caused by the attack itself pales in comparison to the potential loss of human life and the financial cost that can result from an inappropriate response to 911. Millions of lives are potentially at stake. Hundreds of billions of dollars could be spent fighting a single war we shouldn't be fighting. This is money that could have been better spent on domestic issues like the economy and education. That war could lead to other wars. Those wars could likely lead to further terrorist attacks. All of which can escalate without end. So if we make bad decisions, we can kick off a death spiral of devastation in which the more we fight it, the worse it gets. We could literally become our own worst enemy.

Putting the lessons into action

We should be asking ourselves two key questions:

  • What could we have done that would have reduced the chance that the 911 attack would have happened?
  • What should we be doing now to reduce the chance of this happening again?

The answer is obvious. We should put our efforts into addressing the root causes of this terrorism, not the symptom. We need to make it less likely that people will want to fund and/or participate in such activities.

Here are a few ideas:

  • We should have a Department of Peace and International Cooperation and Assistance, not a Department of Homeland Security. 
  • We should be supporting international treaties, not backing out of them. 
  • We should be a leader in seeking peaceful solutions to conflicts, not a leader in the pre-emptive strike. 
  • We should be respectful of foreign leaders, not insulting them by calling them pygmies. 
  • We should respect foreign governments, not label them "evil."
  • We should be having talks with our adversaries, not refusing to talk (as we are with North Korea). 

In short, we should be doing exactly the opposite of what we are doing now.

The Bush response to 911

We are ignoring the real lessons of 911 as the table below points out. We are doing the opposite of what 911 teaches us we should be doing. We are making things worse, not better. Virtually all of the actions we are taking today would not have prevented 911; we are solving the wrong problem.

The lesson from 911 The Bush response
Disarming foreign powers won't work because now terrorists are using our own "weapons" against us Disarm foreign powers, starting with Iraq
Increasing homeland security won't work because there are way too many holes and we can't make our airports safe even today Increase homeland security 
The new threat is from the people of  friendly nations, not the governments of unfriendly nations Attack governments of unfriendly nations. Focus efforts on perceived threats, rather than actual threats. Attack any government that we think might be a threat to us. Create false sense of urgency. Prioritize to attack the country that is least threatening to the US first (Iraq) and save the biggest, clearly real threats (North Korea) for last. Completely ignore the countries where the terrorists were from.
We are too dependent on foreign oil. The only way out is to reduce our demand. Do just the opposite; don't do anything about reducing demand and instead try to increase both supply and demand. Attempt to increase supply, e.g., drilling in ANWR. Also, take actions that will increase our net dependence on foreign oil such as providing additional tax breaks for businesses that purchase large SUVs, i.e., incentivize inefficiency. Do not provide any incentives whatsoever to car manufacturers who voluntarily increase their average fuel economy. Vigorously oppose increasing the fuel economy of new cars (CAFE standards), thus ensuring that our dependence will continue to grow every year. Seek expensive new sources of oil within the US(ANWR) that will provide only a little new oil in 10 to 20 years from now, and nowhere near enough to compensate for the increased consumption. Don't ask Americans to sacrifice. Don't ask Americans to buy fuel efficient cars. Do absolutely nothing to incentivize plug-in hybrids, proven technology that can dramatically increase gas mileage and lower emissions without any significant disadvantages compared to a conventional gas vehicle.
People don't like us overseas because of our hegemonic foreign policies Don't let foreign opinion influence our decision, but try to get foreign support. If we can't get support based on the merits of our case, try forcing them to make a black-and-white "if you are not with us, then you are against us" decision. If that doesn't work, offer billions of dollars to convince them of the merits of our argument. If that doesn't work, then just ignore them and do what we think is best, even if it means increasing the level of animosity towards the US and even if 90% of the people of the world are against us. Adopt a new outlook on getting along with others:  "if we think you might be a supplier to terrorists, even if we have no hard evidence that anyone believes, we're going to invade your country and kill your people."
The biggest threat isn't the attack itself, it's now our response to the attack Launch an attack on a country that has never threatened the US, has never attacked the US, and was not in any way responsible for 911. Risk millions of human lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. The cost in human life and financial cost may both easily dwarf the cost of the 911 attack. In short, use the American government to amplify the human and financial cost of the original attack.
The best way to reduce the amount of terrorism, is to reduce the number of terrorists. You do that by 1) understanding why tens of thousand of people are pissed at you, and 2) modifying the policies that fuel that rage. The fewer terrorists there are, the less likely we are to be attacked. Spend hundreds of billions to provide a fertile breeding ground for terrorists. Invade Iraq, dismantle the order and control. Then continue occupy the country so that terrorists have the perfect target and a reason to become a terrorist . This provides a breeding ground for terrorists and helps recruit new terrorists to battle a real, demonstrated enemy. This has proven to be very successful as there are more terrorist attacks in Iraq in a few weeks than there ever have in the entire history of the country.

Had we wanted to reduce the number of terrorists and thus reduce our risk, we'd withdraw from Iraq.

There are over 10,000 terrorists in Iraq today. So this isn't just an isolated "one person is crazy" type of terrorism that you cannot address. They are pissed because we are in their country, not because they "hate us." Their numbers are not declining so what we are doing today is OBVIOUSLY not working. Isn't it time for a change? If Iraqi's invaded the US and said we should have a government like their government, there would be terrorism until they left us alone. Why should we expect that when we invade Iraq it would be any different?


Eliminating weapons of mass destruction is a good thing. Increasing homeland security (at a sensible level) is a good thing. But let's not get confused. That is not what 911 teaches us. These are not the lessons of 911.

The real lessons of 911 are:

  • There is a new type of terrorism that has emerged that now threatens our security both at home and abroad
  • Conventional thinking and approaches (such as WMD elimination, increasing security, pre-emtive strikes, etc) are ineffective against this "new terrorism." In fact, they can, in some cases, make things worse.
  • To effectively fight the new terrorism, we must attack the cause, not the symptoms. If we continue to focus on and apply conventional thinking and approaches, we'll lose. We must think and act differently than we have in the past. We should be adopting approaches that foster international goodwill, not doing the opposite.

It is likely that terrorism in the US will increase as a result of our pre-emptive strike on Iraq. That's what our Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge tells us. It's also likely we'll spend at least 10 times more money fighting wars that we instigate than 911 cost us.

Ironic isn't it? In the same way, they used our airplanes to kill our people and devastate our economy, now they are using our own government to risk the lives of over 300,000 Americans in a battle we don't need to fight and devastate our economy with an expense 10 times larger than the original attack. In addition, they are also using our own government to increase the chance of future terrorist attacks on America. Our government has also been instrumental in enhancing the respect for Saddam in the Arab world as a hero. All with the majority support of the American people!

The core value of America is freedom. But the terrorist have also leveraged our own government into taking away our freedoms at home, via the Patriot Act and Patriot II.

The terrorists have won. They have successfully convinced America to attack itself.