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Who Benefits from 9/11 Angst?

By Ivan Eland
September 12, 2006

Editor's Note: In this guest essay, the Independent Institute's Ivan Eland explains how excessive commemorations of 9/11 help al-Qaeda terrorists spread more fear and let a few American politicians boost their poll numbers:

Like JFK’s assassination in 1963 and the moon landing in 1969, people remember where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001. In my case, just a few hours before the attack, I was walking down one of the corridors of the Pentagon that was later obliterated by the hijacked aircraft.

After the attack, on 9/11, after most of Washington, D.C. went home from work early, I walked down the streets of a ghost town on my way to do media interview after media interview about the attacks. I admit that these experiences pale in comparison to losing close friends or relatives on that day.

I appreciate the need of survivors to remember lost loved ones. But the media-generated collective national mourning on every anniversary of the attack is doing few people, including the survivors, any good.

When I worked as a volunteer crisis counselor, a professional grief therapist once gave me a briefing on counseling techniques to use when talking to relatives or friends of someone who died. Then she noted that grieving people go through several stages of anguish over a loss, the first of which is mental denial that the loved one has died. The therapist concluded that the only problem with the denial stage is that it doesn’t last long enough.

Denial is a built-in defense mechanism that prevents intense grief from becoming overwhelming and dangerous.

Obviously, the nation is long past the denial stage, but one can question the healthiness of dredging up endless footage of the 9/11 incident and having repeated collective remembrances presented by people who did not lose loved ones in the attacks. This national outpouring of grief gives the media something to do for a few days each year, but it is probably very hard for the survivors to get through.

The only ones benefiting from this “wear-it-on-your sleeve” grief for the dead are the politicians and the monstrous terrorists who perpetrated the attacks. For example, President Bush was in New York on 9/11 to make political hay out of the remembrances.

The president and his party—both sagging in the polls before an important mid-term election because of his administration’s bungling of the Iraq War—are desperate to point out that they were in power when the 9/11 attack happened. The president and the Republicans want to exploit the public exhibition of collective grief because the only issue on which they poll better than Democrats is fighting terrorism.

This polling result, however, has always been a mystery. The president bungled a chance to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, by relying on local militias—which could be, and evidently were, paid off—to go after him instead of risking crack U.S. Special Operations forces then in that country.

Five years later, this rather conspicuous terrorist leader and his important sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, still have not been apprehended. After 9/11, the number of terrorist attacks and suicide terrorist attacks worldwide has skyrocketed. And the unrelated and unnecessary war in Iraq undoubtedly had an important role in spurring more attacks by acting as a motivator and incubator for radical jihadi terrorism.

President Bush and other Republican politicians like to have it both ways. They crow about their anti-terrorism efforts by bragging that the United States has not had another attack since 9/11, while keeping the fear of another attack alive to win elections.

In short, the president tells us that we are "safer but not safe." Such fear mongering is exactly what the terrorists want. Terrorists can save resources by conducting major attacks only at rare intervals and relying on irrational fears of people and governments to do the rest.

John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, in a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, illustrates how rare the terrorism threat is to the average American. He noted that the odds of an American being killed by an international terrorist attack are about one in 80,000—roughly the same as being struck by a meteor or comet.

Because the vast majority of terrorist attacks on Americans or U.S. facilities or interests occur overseas, however, the average person living in the United States has an even lower chance of being killed than Mueller estimates. So collective ceremonies of anguish over 9/11, milked by the politicians, only rekindle excessive fears of terrorism among Americans—thus helping the terrorists achieve their goal with fewer expenditures of money and lives.

In contrast, the U.S. government has squandered $450 billion dollars and expended the lives of many more U.S. soldiers and innocent Afghans and Iraqis in allegedly fighting terror than the 2,973 people who were the victims of 9/11. U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq recently topped that sad total.

Of course, the U.S. government does not publish data on the Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed, but estimates in Iraq range from 20,000 to 100,000. Where are the media-driven annual remembrance ceremonies for all of these people?

In the future, the loved ones of 9/11 victims would probably be better off if our society left them alone to mourn in private without the media’s klieg lights. And our country would certainly be better off to rid itself of the annual combination of collective self-flagellation and opportunistic fear mongering. Only the terrorists lose by ending the annual media extravaganzas.


Ivan Eland is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty, and author of the books The Empire Has No Clothes, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.


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