- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
One of the primary ways the attacks of September 11, 2001 were supposed to have changed the United States was by revealing to us our vulnerability within our own borders to terrorist attacks. But of course, we had seen many terrorist attacks before then.
We had seen them throughout American history — shootings and hijackings and bombings. The destruction of Pan Am flight 103 in 1988 remains an open wound today. The 1995 Bojinka plot of Ramzi Yousef and his uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, to blow up 12 airliners en route to the United States and possibly kill as many as 4,000 people was a contributing factor leading to a major heightening of airport security by the Clinton Administration a year later. The Oklahoma City bombing, also in 1995, is still regularly invoked as a sign of our vulnerability to domestic terrorists. Indeed, it was in 1995 that I first remember Richard Clarke, then a colleague in the Clinton Administration and a man who had been both prophetic and evangelical in his warnings of the al Qaeda threat, first describing to me what he sensed that threat to be.
Even just two years before 9/11 we went on high alert on the eve of the millennium, stopping a well-formed, multi-pronged terror threat aimed at our West Coast.
The 9/11 attacks were not even the first attack on the World Trade Center, that having taken place in 1993, also having involved Yousef, Mohammed and a half dozen or so others. In fact, several years before 9/11, I participated in a conference co-sponsored by the Naval War College that was entirely focused on terrorist threats on Wall Street. It took place on the top floor of the World Trade Center. Among those helping to support the event was Howard Lutnick, the chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald. Many of his team from the company attended the event which considered a variety of potential ways terrorists might target the U.S. financial community including bombings using trucks or aircraft. And a few years later, some of those from Cantor Fitzgerald who attended the event would die when their offices in the World Trade Center were consumed in the attacks we have spent much of the past few weeks commemorating.
The morning of Sept. 11, I was to have met with an admiral whose office was adjacent to the wing of the building that was destroyed. But at six o’clock the night before my office received a call saying that he would have to reschedule the meeting. I was pretty put-off. For almost 15 hours.
As a consequence of the postponement of that meeting, I was in my office on the morning of Sept. 11. I was on the phone with a friend who lived in Lower Manhattan a little before 9 a.m. Suddenly, he became agitated and said, "Oh my God, oh my God." I asked what was wrong and he described for me what he had just seen, a plane flying into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He suggested that I turn on the television in my office, which I did.
Soon after, I walked into the office next door which was occupied by my business partner at the time, former U.S. National Security Advisor Tony Lake. We were joined by another colleague, former Deputy CIA Director John Gannon. It was there that we saw the second plane hit the tower. At that moment, Tony said, "Al Qaeda" softly to himself. John nodded. It was, at that point, only a well-informed guess. But again, both men had been involved for most of the past decade in a growing effort to understand and contain the threat posed by al Qaeda and other similar groups.
Al Qaeda had officially "declared war" on the United States in 1996 and that the Clinton Administration, that had been tracking Bin Laden and his associates since almost its very first days had made him a principle target of its intelligence and counter-terror efforts years before 9/11. In 1998, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency had reported that al Qaeda was planning attacks on the United States and that personnel were being trained to hijack aircraft. In August of that year, our embassies in East Africa were attacked.
We went to lunch that day at an outdoor café near our offices, joined by another colleague, Susan Rice, today the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. I remember a meandering, vaguely surreal conversation touching upon what that day’s events might mean and semi-deserted streets over which periodically could be heard jet fighters rushing overhead through the bright blue skies. There was a sense that threats which had been underestimated by many in Washington might now be taken more seriously, but even then there was also a sense that we would need to be careful to succumb to the temptation to over-reaction. As John Gannon would later often say, "the terrorists are not twelve feet tall," meaning that we should not succumb to the temptation to overstate the threat from them. And yet, of course, he was at the vanguard of those who also worked tirelessly to identify and contain the very real threats that existed.
As profound and horrifying a tragedy as it was therefore, 9/11 was not new but part of a pattern, not the beginning of a threat but in fact, one of the few instances in which the threat was realized by a small hate group with limited, sporadic capability to successfully follow-through on its grandiose, malevolent plans.
Nonetheless, due to the gravity of what happened a decade ago, we have had a tendency to set aside the historical context. It helped with the healing and indeed, it seemed respectful to those who were lost to frame the attacks as though they were something new, the act of a great enemy, a piece of a much grander struggle akin to past conflicts that took a high toll. I know when I think of those that were lost, personalizing it as we all do to the stories closest to us — the kid who grew up across the street from me who was killed in Tower Two or my tennis partner whose sister in law was a flight attendant on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon — there is some comfort from such an approach.
But comfort aside — and it’s no small thing, comfort, in the face of such grief — the view is wrong. 9/11 was one of the few realized plots of a small band of outcast criminals. Such plots and such groups will always exist and we are within our rights and indeed, it is our responsibility to civilization, to eradicate such groups and take all reasonable steps to minimize such threats. But it does no one any good to overstate the risks and indeed, as we have seen, it has done us great damage to do so … even as it has done service to the goals of al Qaeda and other radical extremists.
A decade later the attack has changed us because it touched us and altered irrevocably millions of lives here and across the Middle East. But if you look at the great issues before the United States in 2011, terror is no greater a threat nor any greater an issue today than it was throughout the 1990s. It is important, but our great challenges are the reinvention of our economy, the education of our children, the protection of our environment, the rise of new great powers and a rapidly changing global order, and the implications of participating in an interconnected, risk-filled, under-regulated, untransparent global economy.
9/11 was a heartbreaking event, an important chapter, but it was neither a beginning nor an end, not redefining nor an appropriate lodestar for future policies. As a consequence, tributes having been appropriately paid, memories having been rekindled, it is time to realize that the biggest threat posed that day comes from misunderstanding it and that the best way to contain the risks posed by the men who orchestrated it is to put them and their actions in the right historical context.