Remembering September 11, 2001: Fighting the Fear

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By michele angrist

Sept. 11, 2001 was a Tuesday, and I was teaching the first week of my Arab-Israeli politics course during my first year at Union College. Together, my students and I watched the towers fall. I was already concerned about teaching this class given the intense emotions the Arab-Israeli conflict can evoke.

So all morning, I quietly hoped that the terror attack—somehow—would have nothing to do with politics in the Middle East.Of course, the attack had everything to do with the Middle East. Osama Bin Laden’s grievances against U.S. policy included our support for Israel, but his main concern was to bring down the secular authoritarian regimes that then dominated the Middle East—and to replace them with a kind of new-age Islamic caliphate governed by Shari’a law.

For twenty years, radical Islamist movements had used violence in attempts to fell these Arab dictatorships—in Algeria and Egypt most prominently— but by the late 1990s it was clear they had failed utterly. Indeed, by then, many jihadists were re-thinking their goals and methods.

In prison, they penned articles and books in which they argued they were wrong for using violence against their fellow Muslims, concluding that they needed to pursue a more pluralistic, open-minded approach to regime change in the Arab world.

Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the men who followed them into al-Qaeda were a jihadist minority who felt compelled to continue the fight for a new political reality in the Middle East.

Having failed in their head-on attempts to bring down Arab dictatorships, they decided to pursue a new strategy: directly attack the United States—a key economic, political, and military backer of many Arab dictatorships—in the hopes that, over time, a fearful U.S. public would pressure the U.S. government to withdraw support from those regimes. Here al-Qaeda by and large failed to achieve its goal.

But al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11th attack had another goal: to provoke the United States into a military overreaction that would spill the blood of innocent Muslims – in so doing galvanizing new support for al-Qaeda from within the Muslim world at a time when the organization was very much a marginal player. Here al-Qaeda succeeded, as the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and especially Iraq make clear.Part of my own response to Sept. 11 was to develop a new course about terrorism.

My reading of the social science literature on the subject taught me many things I had not known prior. First, as long as the U.S. is a global hegemonic power with an essentially invincible conventional military force, non-state actors with grievances against our policies will, for the forseeable future, challenge us in asymmetrical ways—including through terrorism.

Second, the literature is pretty clear that military force is a blunt instrument that does not typically vanquish terrorists.

Third, terrorism works through the fear it instills in those who survive the attacks (but see their horrific effects all around in the media). Our attackers hope that in our fear, we will bend to their will. Thus, part of an intelligent national response to terrorist threats is becoming resilient and resolute as a society—rather than fearful.

If would-be enemies become convinced that they cannot elicit their hoped-for, fear-driven expected reaction from us, we become less of a target.

Finally, fear does not make for good public policy. It activates a part of our brain that leads us to see the world as a dangerous place (more dangerous than it actually might be) in which politics is exclusively “us” versus “them”—and inclines us toward the use of force to the neglect of other potentially more fruitful tools.

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