Despite years of evidence gathered by the US intelligence community that Al Qaeda was plotting a major attack, 9/11 was a shock to people all over the world. The plane attacks killed more Americans than were killed at Pearl Harbor, and there was a desire of the part of Americans to retaliate — not just against the terrorists, but also against the source of our fear, which as President Bush put it, was evil itself.
Three days after the terrorist strikes, President George W. Bush announced that his administration would “rid the world of evil.” Bush’s words set the tone for what followed over the next 20 years.
The war in Afghanistan started with a limited and reasonable goal: to stop Al Qaeda terrorists from striking again. Most of the terrorists involved in the group that planned 9/11 were captured, dispersed, or killed. It became harder for Al Qaeda to command its franchise groups around the globe. But Bush and the presidents who followed were not content with the completion of that limited counterterrorism goal. Vivid memories, such as images of people jumping to their deaths from the twin towers evoke an especially strong sense of dread. We also feel disproportionate dread when danger involves uncertainty, involuntary exposure, and the potential for catastrophe. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains, the emotional arousal ignited by terrorism and other vivid hazards is associative, automatic, and difficult to control. Bin Laden’s precise location was unknown. But the urge to retaliate against the “evildoers” was nearly irresistible.
When confronted by moral evil, when overcome by dread, decision-makers are susceptible to action bias, which involves choosing actions with minimal consideration of countervailing dangers or long-term consequences. And they are unlikely to consider whether the cost of retaliation — measured in lives and opportunities lost — could be better spent elsewhere on less visible but more serious threats.
A demonstrably false argument was made about connections between Al Qaeda and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Before long, war spread there as well. The mission of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq expanded well beyond counterterrorism. New, anticipatable, but apparently unanticipated dangers were introduced by the wars on terror.
Among them was the emergence of ISIS, a militant group that proved more brutal than Al Qaeda. Another was the risk to our local allies if the US military couldn’t extract them to safety at war’s end. Another was the failure to consider the panoply of dangers faced by our country, including those that were less dramatic but more significant than terrorism, such as climate change or the emerging risks associated with our reliance on digital technologies.
Bush gave voice to our primitive dread of evil. The drive to rid the world of it was too seductive, and we continued our wars on terror even after the leader of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Osama Bin Laden, was killed. Meanwhile, the United States ignored more fundamental threats, such as the degradation in global capacity to protect public health.
By now, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project, the United States has spent over $6 trillion on the post-9/11 wars. Some 800,000 people have died, — including 7,000 US military personnel and 335,000 civilians. After 20 years of fighting moral evil, might we marshal our resources to address other evils such as newly emerging infectious diseases or climate change, which, over the long term, may represent a threat to our very existence?
There is no clear enemy to fight but still much work to do. Experts have been begging us to address these dangers for decades. Now that climate change and pandemic disease have become more visceral, perhaps we will heed the experts’ warnings.
Jessica Stern is a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and a senior fellow in the Community Safety Branch at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.