The Nation That Fell To Earth

Did the U.S. overreact to Sept. 11? Niall Ferguson, one of the world's leading historians, speculates on how future generations will judge the war on terrorism--and on what it will take for America to win it


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    Would another President have done better? That was the question posed by Christopher Hitchens in his best-selling biography Bush: A Study in Greatness, published in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Hitchens argued convincingly that neither Al Gore nor John Kerry would have been more successful than Bush in defusing the jihadist threat. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives but they're a nuisance," Kerry said in an interview in 2004, drawing a parallel with the containment of prostitution, illegal gambling and organized crime. But Islamist terrorism was a much more imminent threat than climate change (Gore's bugaboo) and a much more serious threat than illegal gambling. In the wake of 9/11, defeating the terrorists had to be America's No. 1 priority. Bush understood this. Had it not been for the Iraq debacle, he would be remembered as the Avenger of 9/11.

    Yet not even Bush's defenders could explain away the fatal flaw in the U.S.'s post-9/11 strategy. In his State of the Union address in January 2002, less than five months after the terrorists had struck, Bush directed his fire against what he called an "axis of evil"--Iran, Iraq and North Korea--which he accused of sponsoring terrorism and "seeking weapons of mass destruction." Yet not one of those countries had been directly implicated in the 9/11 attacks.

    In fact, nearly all the terrorists originated in countries that were closely allied or at least friendly with the U.S. Fifteen of the 19 identified hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was from Lebanon, and the last was from Egypt. Moreover, they had drawn up their murderous plans not in the Middle East but in Europe and the U.S. itself--right at the heart of Western democracies. All the terrorists had been in the U.S. for months before 9/11, entering the country legally, traveling widely and taking flying lessons. They had obtained driver's licenses, rented apartments, opened bank accounts, made airline reservations online and even got speeding tickets.

    Of course, much was done after 9/11--or, at least, much money was spent--to improve America's homeland security. Airline passengers said goodbye to their nail scissors. After 2006 they said goodbye to their hair gel. They got used to having their luggage searched and their bodies frisked. Western intelligence agencies stepped up their efforts to monitor and penetrate terrorist networks. And there were some major successes. In June 2006 Canadian police arrested suspected terrorists who had about 3 tons of ammonium nitrate in their possession. Two months later, British authorities were able to announce the disruption of a plot to blow up multiple transatlantic flights--which would have caused, in the words of the deputy commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police, "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."

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