At first, 9/11 seemed impossible. Witnesses couldn’t believe their eyes; officials were bewildered; wild tales swirled of conspiracies involving the CIA, the Jews, real-estate speculators. Yet the impossible happened, and the site of its occurrence in Manhattan fittingly became known as Ground Zero, recalling the devastated landscapes left in the past by atomic experiments.

Now that the general alarm has dissipated, however, we can see that the attack on New York was not unprecedented in its inspiration, its actors, or even its method. The strategy of causing panic by burning cities and terrorizing populations was theorized a century and a half ago by Russian nihilists such as Bakunin and Nechayev, as Dostoyevsky’s novel Demons described. The indiscriminate targeting of civilians wasn’t new: fanatical ideologies both profane and religious have done it since Guernica. Neither were the operational tactics: the World Trade Center was attacked by Islamists in 1993, and the means of destruction—a hijacked airplane—was anticipated in 1994, when an Airbus, commandeered by a jihadist group in Algeria, was supposed to crash in Paris. As for the suicidal dimension, professional martyrs have abounded among Bolsheviks, Nazis, and all true believers determined to give their lives for the cause. The pieces were thus already in place; all that was missing was the plan necessary to put the unthinkable into action.

A few Western officials, but not enough, were aware that the Islamist threat was growing. When Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, tried to alert the French political leadership of imminent danger, only a handful of intellectuals, and perhaps two or three legislators, met with him. The Taliban assassinated him two days before the attack on New York and Washington. Eventually, with American assistance, his troops would liberate Kabul.

September 11 didn’t have to happen. The general blindness of officials is often blamed on bureaucratic squabbling or by rivalries among national leaders. But a sharp and widely shared sense of danger would have swept aside such infighting. Instead, many of our seers were intoxicated by the prospect of living at “the end of history”: the Cold War was over, and major threats would be a thing of the past. This fallacious reasoning promised us the best of all possible worlds, one with smaller military budgets and universal peace close at hand. Only “low-intensity conflicts” would remain—nothing to trouble the security of the world’s great metropolises. September 11 exploded this widely shared placidity. Now it was possible to trace a straight line from Kabul burning to the rubble of lower Manhattan.

In politics as in economics, postulating that big crises are out of the question opens the door to unimaginable crises. Ten years later, have we woken from the sleep for which we paid so dearly? Yes and no. Encouragingly, America has reevaluated its alliances. Was it not America’s ostensible ally, Saudi Arabia, that supplied al-Qaida with its Salafist ideology, its financing, and the 15 hijackers who were children of good Saudi society? George W. Bush drew the theoretical conclusion: “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”

The practical conclusion, though, has been ongoing: the containment of the Taliban; Saddam Hussein—spared in 1991 thanks to Saudi pressure, at the cost of the double massacre of the Kurds and the Shiites—toppled in 2003 and hanged in 2006; despots threatened by popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and abandoned by the United States; and the frozen societies of the Mediterranean and the Middle East extricating themselves from their stagnant history, as democratic demands lend substance to dreams of freedom.

The uprisings seem like a positive development, but false optimism remains a danger. Three opposing forces must be kept in mind: the restless youth, only partly converted to Enlightenment ideals; religious parties, with their continuing dreams of a caliphate; and a corrupt military machinery disposed to repression. With Saddam eliminated, Washington originally thought that the Iraq problem was solved. It learned the truth the hard way, as the killing of Iraqis by Iraqis, the great sport of the defunct regime, continued. Today, with the possible exception of Tunisia, the countries celebrating the Arab Spring hardly seem immunized against the plagues of terrorism, intolerance, xenophobia, and tribal war. And now, when Europeans, led by the British and the French, have dared to undertake an armed humanitarian intervention, they have run the risk of proclaiming premature victory: post-Qaddafi Libya promises to be as tense as post-Saddam Iraq.

Bin Laden is dead, but the force that struck Manhattan remains. In order for a little band armed with box cutters to strike at the heart of the world’s greatest power, all that was needed were a few lawless regions and some unscrupulous “sponsors,” all of which remain in ample supply. The old paradigm is obsolete: great states no longer hold a monopoly on the capacity for historical devastation. Anyone might take advantage of this new situation. “Once the limits of the possible have been overturned, it is difficult to bring them back,” Clausewitz observed, announcing that the era of massively murderous battles had not ended with Napoleon. The belle epoque cheerfully forgot Clausewitz’s warning, but the following century confirmed it. Bin Laden is gone, not the radical and merciless hatred that he represented.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next