Are We Safer?

Measuring our progress a decade after the 9/11 attacks

This weekend marks the tenth anniversary of the most lethal terrorist attack on American soil. OTB’s writers offer their thoughts on our progress.

Dave Schuler: Despite the passage of ten years, the expenditure of trillions of dollars, and the loss of thousands of lives, we are no safer than we were ten years ago. To understand why you don’t need to engage in yet another futile and frustrating rehashing of our actions since the attacks on September 11, 2001. We have done very little if anything to address the critical success factors for the attacks and, consequently, the risk of a devastating attack is just as high as it was on 9/10.

Afghanistan was not a critical success factor behind the attacks. There are hundreds of square miles of ungoverned territory between the Bosporus and the Indus and in the deserts of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The Taliban was not a critical success factor. They are not the only Islamist masters of a state who sponsor terrorism. Osama bin Laden was not a critical success factor for the attacks. Any number of attacks have taken place since he went to ground shortly after the attacks and there continue to be threats after his death.

Certainly Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq, dangerous as it might have been, was not a critical success factor behind the attacks.

The actions that we have taken domestically especially including centralizing security agencies and federalizing airport boarding pre-screening have not addressed the critical success factors behind the attacks.

This is not to say that we should not have responded to the attacks or that we shouldn’t have removed the Taliban or pursued Osama bin Laden. Failing to respond in any would have placed us at even greater risk than we faced on 9/10.

In a sense looking for safety is asking the wrong question. If there is a single lesson that unites the Oklahoma City bombing, the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, and the attacks on 9/11, it is the enormous increase in individual empowerment. Individuals or small groups at relatively low expense can wreak tremendous devastation. This will only increase. Today radiological, chemical, and biological weapons are well within the capability of small groups without extensive funding. You can construct these things in your basement or even in the closet of your apartment bedroom. Fortunately, nuclear weapons appear to remain beyond the reach of anything but a state but that may not always continue to be the case.

Rather than looking for safety I believe we should be thinking more clearly about resilience. How can we make our institutions and ourselves more resilient to disruption and attack? We have hardly begun this inquiry.

James Joyner: The people who attacked us ten years ago are substantially weaker and less able to do us harm. It would now be so difficult to hijack a commercial airliner, much less four, that nobody has seriously tried.  We’ve hardened several other targets, most notably federal buildings and national monuments. We’ve raised citizen awareness, which has directly foiled attempted attacks. These factors help explain why there has not been another mass casualty terrorist attack on American soil in the intervening decade.

Mostly, though, it’s serendipity. After all, the only significant foreign terror attack within the country prior to 9/11 was the 1993 World Trade Center attack, in which massive deaths were averted only by the incompetence of the bombers. Then as now, most of the attacks on Americans take place where the terrorists live and thus have support networks: Karachi, Riyadh, Amman, Damascus, Mumbai.

I continue to be surprised, if thankful, that Israel-style suicide bombings haven’t caught on here. Three or four successful attacks in shopping malls, sports stadia, airports, and similar places where large crowds gather would cripple the country with fear and lead us to spend more trillions we don’t have hardening those targets at the expense of freedom and convenience.

Note that airports are on the list. We’ve made it much harder–although by no means impossible–to smuggle a bomb onto an airplane. But we’ve done it in a way that makes our airport terminals target rich environments, with hundreds of people queued up in a tight gaggle and focused only on making it through the infernal line.

Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–which, unlike Dave, I supported–have bled our resources, diminished our soft power, and quite possibly bred more radicals than we’ve killed. Additionally, as my friend Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, author of the new book Bin Laden’s Legacy, argues,

We have an economy in shambles and a national debt of more than $14 trillion. If this continues, we won’t be able to maintain our current security apparatus and our ability to project power — both seriously expensive enterprises — forever. A decade ago, American safety came in part from the fact that we had the capacity, if needed, to ramp up resources to devote to the problem. In the coming decade, fewer resources will be available to devote to counterterrorism and to other problems the country faces; just look at the political scuffle over finding federal money to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. In fact, if current concerns about U.S. creditworthiness snowball, the U.S. could come to have drastically fewer resources to deal with its challenges, foreseen and unforeseen.
It’s not just the U.S. that’s cost-cutting. Austerity is now a global phenomenon, with most developed countries trimming — or severely slashing — their intelligence and security budgets. Austerity can diminish capabilities as well as spread instability, as we saw in the riots in the UK and Greece.  The problem is compounded by resource scarcity — prices are skyrocketing for everything from oil to rare metals to food — further constraining the U.S. and its allies. Not only will we be more hard-pressed to prevent terrorism, but it will be more difficult to absorb another attack. Our resilience has eroded in multiple ways, from our weakened economy, which has increased joblessness and slashed personal savings, to the bitter partisan divide fraying American social cohesion.

Yes, as Michael Cohen responds, we’ve managed to “find” the money to not only sustain but ramp up spending in Afghanistan and elsewhere and would likely do the same were there another attack. But our economic might was the chief factor in turning us into a global superpower a century ago; our national security state is helping undermine that strength.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Africa, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. john personna says:

    This old Time magazine article is still my favorite on mis-allocated risk:

    How Americans Are Living Dangerously

    Which risks get excessive attention and which get overlooked depends on a hierarchy of factors. Perhaps the most important is dread. For most creatures, all death is created pretty much equal. Whether you’re eaten by a lion or drowned in a river, your time on the savanna is over. That’s not the way humans see things. The more pain or suffering something causes, the more we tend to fear it; the cleaner or at least quicker the death, the less it troubles us. “We dread anything that poses a greater risk for cancer more than the things that injure us in a traditional way, like an auto crash,” says Slovic. “That’s the dread factor.” In other words, the more we dread, the more anxious we get, and the more anxious we get, the less precisely we calculate the odds of the thing actually happening. “It’s called probability neglect,” says Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago professor of law specializing in risk regulation.

    The same is true for, say, AIDS, which takes you slowly, compared with a heart attack, which can kill you in seconds, despite the fact that heart disease claims nearly 50 times as many Americans than AIDS each year. We also dread catastrophic risks, those that cause the deaths of a lot of people in a single stroke, as opposed to those that kill in a chronic, distributed way. “Terrorism lends itself to excessive reactions because it’s vivid and there’s an available incident,” says Sunstein. “Compare that to climate change, which is gradual and abstract.”

  2. Andy says:


    You gave a list of things that weren’t “critical success factors” – how about a list of things that were and why?

  3. Andy says:

    @john personna:

    Yep, people don’t measure risk from a strictly utilitarian POV.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    Not to give credence to that fool Rumsfeld…but I think the answer to the question is one of the known unknowns.
    I will say that the response to this recent episode gives me comfort. Officials have been clear and open, to the extent they can be I think, and have not been sensationalizing or over-dramatizing it. None of this Code Orange Yellow Red Fuscia bullsh** that the Bushies used solely for political gain. I think the end result is that people in New York and Washington this morning are aware and alert. If they aren’t…well it’s not the Governments fault. Prior to 9.11 we didn’t hear anything about terrorists attempting to hijack planes and fly them into buildings even though the Government was aware of it.
    Are we safer? Who knows. The citizenry is awake…Bush is off pretending to cut brush…and Cheney is busy re-writing history in an attempt to burnish his legacy. Those 3 things alone are a vast improvement to our nat’l security.

  5. Dave Schuler says:


    I’ve posted on that from time to time over at my place. Let me suggest some of them. Note that my suggesting these critical success factors doesn’t mean that I think that something should be done about them or even that anything can be done about them.

    1. The general freedom of movement, commerce, and information in the United States.

    2. Greater wealth and education in the Middle East.

    3. Pre-boarding security that concentrates on weapons rather than weapon-users.

    just to name three. Again, don’t misconstrue this is my suggesting that we should try to change any of these. Our strengths were used against us. That’s what asymmetric warfare is.

    In reference to James’s remark, above, about increased security I think that the entirety of whatever increased air security we have can be explained by the tightening up of cockpit security, i.e. break-in resistant doors, regulations to lock doors in flight, etc. IMO those were among the relatively few prudent steps we took in the aftermath of 9/11.

    In reference to the third, IMO much of our present pre-boarding security is security theater. For years after 9/11 I, unwittingly, flew regularly with an X-Acto knife in my computer bag. It was never detected. At some point I or someone else had thrown it into the bottom of the bag and it stayed there until I changed computer bags.

  6. Catfish says:

    We are not safer if we forget the lessons of the past that have caused great pain for this country: December 7 and September 11. We would be a lot better off to have a squadron of B52’s always on standby. We need General LeMay.

  7. Andy says:

    @Dave Schuler:


    IMO the most important change was attitude and perception in reaction to an airplane hijacking. It used to be policy for crews to cooperate with hijackers because the assumption was they’d simply order the plane to fly somewhere. Even without hardened cockpit doors, I think it would be very difficult for any hijacker to take control of a plane today simply because people aren’t going to stand by and let it happen.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Dave Schuler: Bruce Schneier and others have demonstrated that there are indeed ways to get weapons through security. But, yes, hardening the cockpit doors and changing surrounding procedures has made the would-be hijacker’s job much harder. Further, @Andy is right: the attitudinal change of passengers and crew alike are also an enhancement.

  9. Dave Schuler says:


    I agree completely. Unfortunately, on net that hasn’t necessarily made us any safer. It just requires those who would harm us to change tactics.

    When discussing people and things that have kept us safe I think it would be remiss not to mention American Muslims. They have proven very, very resistant to being radicalized enough to start blowing themselves up.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    Although much-derided, airport security does make it much harder for terrorists to get weapons onto planes. Impossible, no. But does security complicate the planning for a terrorist and raise his risk of failure? Of course. And in doing so it pushes terrorists toward some different avenue.

    Does the Afghanistan war, and the ongoing drone war make it more difficult for terrorists? Of course. Terrorists — and their state patrons — are not pieces of machinery they’re human beings. And no human being, even a diabolical one, enjoys the idea of suddenly being blown to hell by a missile. You can tell they don’t much like the idea of sudden death because it’s the fate they hope to inflict on those they despise. So, of course the counterattack on the Taliban and our now-resuscitated efforts to kill Al Qaeda make us safer because they again complicate the planning of the enemy and they remind state actors of their vulnerability.

    Is the conclusion therefore that we are net safer? Probably, but it’s a temporary thing. If you graphed the vulnerability level you’d see a slight dip followed by a resumption of a gradual upward trend. Because as pointed out above it’s in the nature of things at this point in history. The US and its allies are utterly dominant, stable, unchallengeable by traditional methods. Asymmetric warfare is dictated by the circumstances, and blowing up airliners isn’t the only way to go about it.

    The counter to asymmetric warfare is not digging ourselves a hole. The counter to asymmetric warfare is courage and resilience. The purpose of terror is terror. If we refuse to be terrorized terror loses its usefulness as a political tool and becomes almost a form of self-expression: deadly but irrelevant.

    We are all in far greater danger from some drunk in an SUV than we are from terrorists.

  11. Sam says:

    Apparently we are since the only terrorist attacks we have suffered are by Islamists shooting a handful of people in this country and we have seen a few attempted attacks thwarted.

    AS they said years ago, we have to be successful 100 % of the time, the terrorists do not.

  12. john personna says:

    To all those who looked down the terrorism-risk microscope, remember that your life-odds for violent death are unchanged. They are essentially the same today as they were in 1990.

    (That is, if you are a civilian. Otherwise your life-odds are still increased.)

  13. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds and @john personna: The odds of dying at the hands of a terrorist are and have always been extremely low. And I say that as someone who spends four workdays a week within walking distance of the White House, which is a much more attractive target than most places where Americans live.

    Still, people reasonably look at deaths caused by terrorists differently than they do deaths in traffic accidents–or even ordinary murders. Evil intent changes the equation. But we could have probably spent 10 percent of what we did on added homeland security and offensive operations and gotten almost the same return in safety–and spent a huge amount on other things where our safety return was higher.

  14. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    Still, people reasonably look at deaths caused by terrorists differently than they do deaths in traffic accidents–or even ordinary murders.

    I think we’ve had this discussion before, and I won’t belabor it, but in a nutshell this is a misuse of the word “reasonable.”

    That word means an unemotional analysis of risks, not an emotional feedback, that since we disproportionately fear something, it suddenly becomes “reasonable” to act on that fear.

  15. john personna says:

    If you want to say it is “human” I won’t argue. But reasonable, or rational, no.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    But we could have probably spent 10 percent of what we did on added homeland security and offensive operations and gotten almost the same return in safety–and spent a huge amount on other things where our safety return was higher.

    Absolutely. We’ve probably saved far more lives by insisting on seatbelts, airbags and crash standards than we will ever lose to terrorists. If we forced hospitals to adopt better hygiene rules we’d save still more.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: Fair enough. It’s doubtless largely emotional but we simply react differently to intentional deaths than preventable accidental deaths. From a cost-benefit analysis, we might* be better off not having a police force and fire departments, investing the money instead in better locks, building materials, and infrastructure. But you’d never convince people of that.

    Relatedly, it makes some sense to invest more in the things that allay widespread fears than in doing behind-the-scenes things that nobody would ever see or appreciate.

    I’m not sure where you draw the line. We’ve clearly drawn it too far on the side of responding irrationally to fear.

    *I haven’t seen the calculations and don’t even have a good back of the envelope calculation to offer. But it seems plausible.

  18. anjin-san says:

    We’ve clearly drawn it too far on the side of responding irrationally to fear.

    I think it would be more accurate to say that the Bush administration drew the line too far on the side of responding irrationally to fear, and a lot of people rolled over and let it happen.

    Now we have an administration that is focused on, and is having considerable success at destroying Al-Qaeda. In the meantime, they are being more honest with the public and are not playing games with national security issues for political gain. A vast improvement.

  19. john personna says:

    Oh, in a rational world I don’t think crime or terrorism prevention would be zeroed out, because criminals and terrorists make their decisions at the margin as well. Some level of visible deterrence would always be justified. It’s the scaling that matters.

    (Did we need a DHS? Or was an FBI enough?)

  20. Dave — You claim we aren’t any safer than we were 10 years ago. Having gone 10 years without a single successful terrorist attack of even a minute fraction of the scale of 9/11, I find it difficult to understand your position. If someone on 9/12 had asked me whether we would escape an attack on the scale of 9/11 or worse for the next decade, I would have answered that I wouldn’t want to bet on it. I don’t feel as safe as I did on 9/10 (nor will I ever), but I do feel safer than I did on 9/12.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @Marc Schulman: Prior to 9/11, we’d gone 225 years without a single successful terrorist attack of even a minute fraction of the scale of 9/11.

  22. Dave Schuler says:

    @Marc Schulman:

    Do you know the story about tiger repellent? It’s a humorous deflating of post hoc propter hoc assertions. As James observes above, we had a long period between attacks before the 9/11 attacks, too.

    Rare occurrences make claims of effectiveness even harder to credit.

    I don’t even claim that the measures we’ve taken haven’t reduced the likelihood of another attack of exactly the nature of the attacks on 9/11. But, as has been seen both in Iraq and Afghanistan, when dealing with intelligent actors counter-tactics appear in response to tactics. The issue is whether on net we’re safer and I don’t believe we are for the reasons noted in the body of the post.

    However, if you feel safer then the steps that were taken after 9/11 may have accomplished their intended objective, since IMO that’s what they were intended to do: make us feel safer.

  23. michael reynolds says:

    Whether we had 225 years without a highly successful act of terror depends on keeping definitions narrow. I doubt Native Americans would agree with that assessment, nor would African-Americans who were frequently on the receiving end of attacks meant to induce terror.

  24. anjin-san says:

    Whether we had 225 years without a highly successful act of terror depends on keeping definitions narrow.

    Well, lets narrow it down to a highly successful act of terror that killed lots of white people who work in nice offices where they earn a good living.

    Well now, wait a sec. There was the Oklahoma City bombing. Of course that was committed by white guys with military backgrounds who were into anti-government and anti-tax rants – so we probably don’t want to spend too much time on it.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: We had targeted military campaigns against the Indian nations but that isn’t terrorism by standard definitions. We had years of small-scale KKK-type terrorism, which was almost certainly more effective than 9/11 in creating sustained terror, but no mass-casualty attacks.

    @anjin-san: I was thinking here in the context of foreign attacks of the sort that our intelligence agencies would help protect us from. But OKC was still “only” 168 dead; that’s a small fraction of the 9/11 toll.

  26. matt says:

    @James Joyner: @James Joyner: Yeah the trail of tears was just a hiking trip and all that..

    Seriously James I’m exceedingly disappointed in you on that one. The Europeans that moved here were raping and pillaging the natives from day one. That was before the central government was formed and made terrorizing natives to be official government business. Why do you think the natives gave up all this land? You think they just decided to cause they were asked nicely? Terror mass murder and genocide were the tools of the trade.

  27. James Joyner says:

    @matt: I’m not interested in an off-topic discussion of the Indian wars. I’m simply pointing out that there were no mass casualty terrorist incidents of the sort we experienced on 9/11 as part of that history.

  28. matt says:

    @James Joyner: So I’m guessing the four thousand Natives that died during the trail of tears don’t count cause you don’t count that as an attack?

    I’m simply pointing out that there WERE mass terrorist attacks in the history of this country.

  29. matt says:

    @Marc Schulman: Prior to 9/11, we’d gone 225 years without a single successful terrorist attack of even a minute fraction of the scale of 9/11.

    Natives would disagree greatly with that comment..

    Now your latest statement changes the goalposts in a way that makes you correct as indeed airplanes are a recent invention that didn’t exist 225 years ago..

  30. James Joyner says:

    @matt: The Trail of Tears was neither a single event nor a terrorist attack. It was the forced relocation of a people over a span of years by the United States government, with massive death a horrible incidental effect.

    In modern terms, it was “ethnic cleansing.” Horrific and unconscionable by modern standards, to be sure. But it’s simply not relevant to the discussion.

  31. Terenchane Santana says:

    You guys are all just letting ur feelings out…the destruction was 10 yrs ago…get over it…now im not saying get over the deaths of 3000 people because im sure that no ones family history can span back 3000 years!!

  32. Terenchane Santana says:

    @matt: the native people were forced to move…hence the name…Trail of Tears…im sure that most of my people do disagree with that comment