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
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.