When None Dare Urge Restraint

One morning, I got out of bed, turned on my computer, and my Netscape email client automatically downloaded that day’s news pane. On that particular day, the news was that two hijacked planes had been flown into the World Trade Center.

These were my first three thoughts, in order:

I guess I really am living in the Future.

Thank goodness it wasn’t nuclear.

and then

The overreaction to this will be ten times worse than the original event.

A mere factor of “ten times worse” turned out to be a vast understatement. Even I didn’t guess how badly things would go. That’s the challenge of pessimism; it’s really hard to aim low enough that you’re pleasantly surprised around as often and as much as you’re unpleasantly surprised.

Nonetheless, I did realize immediately that everyone everywhere would be saying how awful, how terrible this event was; and that no one would dare to be the voice of restraint, of proportionate response. Initially, on 9/​11, it was thought that six thousand people had died. Any politician who had said, “6,000 deaths is 18 the annual US casualties from automobile accidents,” would have been asked to resign the same hour.

No, 9/​11 wasn’t a good day. But if everyone gets brownie points for emphasizing how much it hurts, and no one dares urge restraint in how hard to hit back, then the reaction will be greater than the appropriate level, whatever the appropriate level may be.

This is the even darker mirror of the happy death spiral—the spiral of hate. Anyone who attacks the Enemy is a patriot; and whoever tries to dissect even a single negative claim about the Enemy is a traitor. But just as the vast majority of all complex statements are untrue, the vast majority of negative things you can say about anyone, even the worst person in the world, are untrue.

I think the best illustration was “the suicide hijackers were cowards.” Some common sense, please? It takes a little courage to voluntarily fly your plane into a building. Of all their sins, cowardice was not on the list. But I guess anything bad you say about a terrorist, no matter how silly, must be true. Would I get even more brownie points if I accused al-Qaeda of having assassinated John F. Kennedy? Maybe if I accused them of being Stalinists? Really, cowardice?

Yes, it matters that the 9/​11 hijackers weren’t cowards. Not just for understanding the enemy’s realistic psychology. There is simply too much damage done by spirals of hate. It is just too dangerous for there to be any target in the world, whether it be the Jews or Adolf Hitler, about whom saying negative things trumps saying accurate things.

When the defense force contains thousands of aircraft and hundreds of thousands of heavily armed soldiers, one ought to consider that the immune system itself is capable of wreaking more damage than nineteen guys and four nonmilitary airplanes. The US spent billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers’ lives shooting off its own foot more effectively than any terrorist group could dream.

If the USA had completely ignored the 9/​11 attack—just shrugged and rebuilt the building—it would have been better than the real course of history. But that wasn’t a political option. Even if anyone privately guessed that the immune response would be more damaging than the disease, American politicians had no career-preserving choice but to walk straight into al-Qaeda’s trap. Whoever argues for a greater response is a patriot. Whoever dissects a patriotic claim is a traitor.

Initially, there were smarter responses to 9/​11 than I had guessed. I saw a Congressperson—I forget who—say in front of the cameras, “We have forgotten that the first purpose of government is not the economy, it is not health care, it is defending the country from attack.” That widened my eyes, that a politician could say something that wasn’t an applause light. The emotional shock must have been very great for a Congressperson to say something that . . . real.

But within two days, the genuine shock faded, and concern-for-image regained total control of the political discourse. Then the spiral of escalation took over completely. Once restraint becomes unspeakable, no matter where the discourse starts out, the level of fury and folly can only rise with time.