Cross-posting: My 9/11 etude

(Throughout the day today, The Economist’s Democracy in America blog will be sharing various impressionistic thoughts and recollections on 9/11 by us, the correspondents. Mine is here, and again below:)

ON SEPTEMBER 11th, 2001, I had already been a correspondent for The Economist for four years and, as we are wont, had moved around for the publication, just then finding myself living in Hong Kong and covering Asia. It was already evening in Hong Kong and I had just returned, somewhat tired from a long day, to my flat on the 25th floor of a skyscraper in “Mid-Levels”, with a view of Hong Kong, the harbour and Kowloon. Just then my assistant called and said simply: “Turn on the TV.” For the rest of my night, which for America was that endlessly long morning and day, I watched.

The next morning, I walked to my office and stopped by my usual coffee bar in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s expat playground. All the regulars were there, and in each conversation, people of various nationalities were trying to make sense of what this world was now to become—now, as of September 12th, as of the day after. Anger, worry, confusion, fear—all these emotions were mixed together. I knew right away that the main significance of this dreadful event lay in what would happen next, not in what had already happened. How would America react? China? Muslims? Everybody?

There was a lot of nonsense said in those early days, as always when people must talk about something but have little new to say. I was suddenly getting lots of eager advice to cancel a trip to Indonesia. A Muslim country, you see. I went, and it was my favourite trip ever to that mystical place, easier for the lack of other travelers and just as welcoming as ever. The Schadenfreude of many mainland Chinese was harder to stomach. The unfocused jingoism of some Americans (“nuke’em back to the stone age”) even harder.

The first casualty of war is truth, it is often said. Instead, it is nuance. Every individual flees to his in-group and becomes susceptible to its caricatures of the respective out-group, to what the Germans call a Feindbild, a perception of The Other as enemy. This is already an act of de-humanisation. Bad laws, more oppressive bureaucracy (at borders, in courts, in daily life), distrust in interpersonal relations invariably follow, just as one apocalyptic horseman inevitably rides close behind the one before.

Did September 11th teach us about the risks of terrorism? It should not have. The existential threat of a suitcase bomb, a rogue nuclear event, already existed before and exists still. On the other hand, September 11th itself killed about as many Americans as die each year as a result of texting while driving. Homo sapiens are bad at understanding risks relative to one another, and worse at responding proportionately. The world became a worse place on that day. In part because the terrorists made it that way. In part, because the rest of us then did the same.


For the regulars here, some of these thoughts might strike you as “in-character”, such as those on

14 thoughts on “Cross-posting: My 9/11 etude

  1. Did September 11th teach us about the risks of terrorism? It should not have. The existential threat of a suitcase bomb, a rogue nuclear event, already existed before and exists still.

    I truly liked this piece, I was here and you echoed many of my thoughts on that day.

    But I felt a need to comment on this one pair of sentences. The threat of terrorism has been clearly evident since the late 60’s and was emphasized by events in the 70’s. But 9-11-01 brought it home like no other event because of the other events were far away, even if the casualties were in the hundreds (Khobar Towers, Embassy bombings) and the destruction terrible. The first Trade Towers bombing in 1993 should have woke us up but it was deemed a failure, a bungled job, it left us our sense of invulnerability, perhaps. So 9-11-01 did slap us hard across the face.

    • douglas,

      i agree with you – however i believe that too many still feel invulnerable and are not alert to potentially dangerous situations. in this sense they have not learned enough.

    • Actually, just to make that clear, I was almost deliberately vague in this post. I treated it as sort of a haiku, or an impressionist sketch, on a day when too much was being written about this.

      My point with that throw-away phrase was really that we’re even now not nuanced about our risk assessments and proportionate in our responses. Talk to Bruce Schneier, a security expert, about that, or read his books. We leave ourselves wide open for some enormous risks, and totally overreact against perceived but minor risks elsewhere. Most of what we call “security” is a show we put on to make ourselves feel better.

    • Dafna – Yes, perhaps too many feel invulnerable and, ironically, too many may feel vulnerable. The risks are quite varied. In my little town, I evaluate the risk of a terror attack as miniscule. We are not a high priority target and have no large venues to attack which would make a big splash news-wise. On the other hand, that means we are somewhat lax in the security area.

      Andreas – I agree, essentially. I was looking at it from a public awareness vantage point, not a government preparedness one, Those of us who pay attention to such things have long been aware of the radical Islam threat. One always hopes the government is a step ahead of these things but, all too often, operate more in a reactive mode.

  2. Homo sapiens are bad at understanding risks relative to one another, and worse at responding proportionately

    there is a famous philosophical question (if anyone can offer attribution) that goes something like, “if you are struck do you strike back, especially if striking back creates damage beyond the intended target”?

    the moral and evolved answer, is to NOT strike back. to include subtlety, nuance, and risk assessment. to make the decision based on the good of the whole NOT simply that of the individual.

    in this sense, the world did become a lesser place since 9/11.

    thanks for posting your thought Andreas.

    • I usually leave myself wiggle room in answering that philosophical question of to-turn-the-other-cheek-or-not.

      In the tactical and real-life context of game theory and actual experience, it is good to turn the other cheek sometimes, to strike back very hard other times, to respond in yet another way other times. (In this context, why no “Muslim Marshall Plan”?)

    • It is interesting that it is described as a “terrorist attack” rather than sabotage. Because we were ostensibly neutral in the conflict, it would seem that “terrorist” makes sense but we were supplying England and France with various supplies for war so I would look at it as sabotage.

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