Americans Met Attacks by Drawing on Strengths

Originally published in Bloomberg News

September 7, 2011
Edward Glaeser (Glimp Professor of Economics, Harvard University)

In 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended American isolationism and brought our country into a global war that resulted in a colossal rebuilding effort and a long, postwar conflict with the Soviet Union.
The 2001 attacks on New York and the Pentagon also demolished illusions of isolation, and, once again, the U.S. has shown resilience, despite external assault and some self- inflicted errors. We need that resilience, and the wisdom that can emerge from experience, because we are ever more enmeshed in a dangerous world.
The immediate lesson of the Sept. 11 attacks was that we aren’t protected by our oceans. The world is full of dangerous people, many of whom wish us harm. We embraced two approaches to this risk: protecting our homeland and exporting democracy through aid and military action. Although there will always be controversy over specific policies, such as the new airport screening procedures, almost all agree we need more protection than 10 years ago.
That is one small nugget of wisdom. The lesson from our foreign ventures is less clear. It was never obvious that democracy or prosperity abroad would protect us against acts of terror.
Alan Krueger, the new chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, demonstrated that terrorists aren’t among the most destitute. My colleague Effi Benmelech finds that education appears to increase the efficacy of suicide bombers. Hatred, like the anti-American feelings that animated the Sept. 11 terrorists, can easily emerge in democratic settings.
Arab Spring
Yet, we should all still hope for a world with more freedom and prosperity, and I believe that the U.S. still has a role to play in helping that world emerge. The past year seems to have been a good one for democracy: The Arab Spring toppled dictators in North Africa, and there are green shoots in East Asia, where after a high-speed rail crash the Chinese are more aggressively debating the flaws of their system.
Perhaps the one clear lesson from our wars is that reasoned calculation is a safer basis for foreign policy than emotion. The problem with the Iraq War wasn’t its goal of toppling Saddam Hussein, but our failure to accurately assess the operation’s human and financial costs, now in the trillions.
The right reaction to that war isn’t to shun all future military interventions, but to demand a more reasoned analysis of costs and benefits. Ultimately, the Constitution rests upon the very rational calculations of our founders, and a devotion to reason may be the greatest distinction between us and the terrorists.
Manhattan Undefeated
Although the last decade has illustrated the limits of U.S. resources, it has also highlighted our nation’s many strengths. These are perhaps most evident in the example of New York City itself. Many believed that the World Trade Center’s destruction would defeat Manhattan, and that people would shun high towers for fear of future attacks. New York remains strong.
The city’s survival reflects the power of smart, free people who are connected by urban density. We saw that power in the emotional fiber of the city in the days after the attacks. We saw the attraction of New York’s economic model as companies, displaced by the terrorist attack, returned. The comeback of the badly hit Cantor Fitzgerald LP, which lost 658 employees in the north tower of the World Trade Center, has been particularly inspiring.
New York recovered after the British occupation during the Revolution, and it recovered from the bloody 1863 draft riots, and it recovered from the fiscal disaster of the 1970s.
Strength of Cities
This resilience is astounding. The analysts who thought the density would be too dangerous in an age of terror missed three countervailing forces.
First, density is increasingly important in an age of ideas, because knowledge passes more easily over close corridors. Second, effective government has long been able to counter the downsides of density, such as contagious disease and violent crime, and good government was able to make New York much safer from terrorism. Third, density itself can help protect against outside attack. Large buildings are a target, but far-flung homes can also be vulnerable. Last month’s Hurricane Irene did far more damage in the suburbs, where it struck down open electric wires, than in New York, where abundant infrastructure helped protect the city.
Although New York’s example is particularly inspiring, the larger U.S. economy also has shown its strength. Ten years ago, there was no Facebook Inc. or iPad from Apple Inc., and Google Inc. was tiny. Certainly, our current labor market malaise is painful, but that too shall pass.
Political Failings
The largest failings over the last decade are political. Many Americans were disappointed by both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The fracas in Congress over the debt ceiling did little to inspire confidence. Yet the messiness of our republic shouldn’t blind us to its fundamental strengths. Our basic freedoms have been preserved. State and local governments continue to provide decent services. The federal government has spent too much, but the political process is now gradually checking that trend.
Because neither party occupies the ideological middle, it is natural that we cycle back and forth between leaders who veer too much in one direction or the other. The Constitution ensures that Congress and the president will check each other, and the recent debt-ceiling debate was an example of that process in action.
We should never expect too much of any government, which means that we should never be too upset when the system works imperfectly.
Our nation survived the terrible attack 10 years ago because we have strong institutions built on freedom and individual initiative and reason. The challenges facing us today are real, just as they were on that awful day.
Now, as then, America will move onward, still free, still strong and, let’s hope, a little wiser.