CAMBRIDGE – Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States ten years ago was a profound shock to both American and international public opinion. What lessons can we learn a decade later?
Anyone who flies or tries to visit a Washington office building gets a reminder of how American security was changed by 9/11. But, while concern about terrorism is greater, and immigration restrictions are tighter, the hysteria of the early days after 9/11 has abated. New agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and an upgraded Counter Terrorism Center have not transformed American government, and, for most Americans, personal freedoms have been little affected. No more large-scale attacks have occurred inside the US, and everyday life has recovered well.
But this apparent return to normality should not mislead us about the longer-term importance of 9/11. As I argue in my book The Future of Power, one of the great power shifts of this global information age is the strengthening of non-state actors. Al Qaeda killed more Americans on 9/11 than the attack by the government of Japan did at Pearl Harbor in 1941. This might be called the “privatization of war.”
During the Cold War, the US had been even more vulnerable, in technological terms, to a nuclear attack from Russia, but “mutual assured destruction” prevented the worst by keeping vulnerability more or less symmetrical. Russia controlled great force, but it could not acquire power over the US from its arsenal.