Are Americans easily panicked cowards? I think not, but many experts disagree.

This question was raised during a few rounds of cyber tennis between two experts on 4th generation warfare, Chet Richards and John Robb — posting at their websites Defense and the National Interest and Global Guerrillas.  This being an open game in which any number can play, this post discusses one aspect of their debate.  First, a recap of the opening rounds.  These highlight only part of the debate; these posts are worth reading in full.

Biographical note:

Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) is author of Neither shall the Sword (conflict in the years ahead), A Swift Elusive Sword (What if Sun Tzu and John Boyd did a national defense review), and If We Can Keep It (A national security Manifesto for the next Administration).

John Robb (Major, USAF, retired) is the author of Brave New World.

(1)  Chet’s “What to do about Somalia“, 20 April 2009 — Excerpt:

And it would also help if we quit acting scared to death of a few criminals with a religious veneer ensconced in a poverty-ridden “country” some 8,000 miles away. Terrorists are going to strike us again — there’s no way to prevent it — but in the meantime, just to put the threat into perspective, we lose more than 3,000 people to traffic accidents and 1,500 to homicides every month.

(2)  Robb’s “The Next Attack“, 21 April 2009 — Excerpt:

There’s been a long enough pause since 9/11 to generate a great deal of psychological shock from a significant new attack. … The attack, if it does come, will likely be suicide bombers (inexpensive wetware that is employed as terminal guidance systems for explosives) that detonate their packages in crowded commercial areas or Mumbai/Kabul style rampages/hostage take overs.

… Unfortunately, the US is suffering from a new window of vulnerability to this type of attack. Unlike a year ago, any attack on US commercial areas (retail, transportation, etc.) will have outsized network effects. Here’s why. Due to a global economic collapse and excessive indebtedness, Americans have cut back on purchases to repair household balance sheets (this is a long running secular shift). This has put most retail facing firms on the edge of bankruptcy. Any attack on commercial crowds over a large geographic area would radically reduce already depressed revenues at these firms (and drive costs for security through the roof), as people stay away from crowds until they feel safe again.

So, in an unusual turn of circumstance, blood and guts terrorism is now closely aligned with the multiplicative effect of economic systems disruption. As a result, the economic damage to the US from an attack of this type as it struggles to ward off economic depression, would be vast. Firms would wink out of existence at an alarming rate. Returns on investment (ROIs) from any attack of this type could potentially reach $100 million in economic loses for every $1 in attack costs.

Robb’s forecast builds on the usual interpretation of 9-11, as described by Tom Engelhardt in this excerpt from “Killing Civilians — How Safe Do You Actually Want to Be?” (posted at TomDispatch, 23 April 2009):

So those towers came down apocalyptically and it was horrible — and we couldn’t live with it. In response, we invaded a country (“no safe havens for terrorists”), rather than simply going after the group that had acted against us. In the process, the Bush administration went to extreme efforts to fetishize our own safety and security (and while they were at it, in part through the new Department of Homeland Security, they turned “security” into a lucrative endeavor).

Of course, elsewhere people have lived through remarkable paroxysms of violence and terror without the sort of fuss and fear this nation exhibited — or the money-grubbing and money-making that went with it. If you want to be reminded of just how fetishistic our focus on our own safety was, consider this news article: “Weeki Wachee mermaids in terrorists’ cross hairs?“, St. Petersburg Times, 22 April 2005. It began:

“Who on earth would ever want to harm the Weeki Wachee mermaids? It staggers the imagination. Still, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has named Weeki Wachee Springs as the potential terror target of Hernando County, according to a theme park official.

“The Weeki Wacheestaff is teaming up with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office to ‘harden the target’ by keeping the mermaid theater and the rest of the park safe from a potential terror attack, said marketing and promotion manager John Athanason… Terror-prevention plans for Weeki Wachee may include adding surveillance cameras, installing lights in the parking lot and securing areas in the roadside attraction where there may be ‘security breaches,’ he said. But Athanason is also realistic. He said Walt Disney World is a bigger attraction and is likely to receive more counterterrorism funds.”

(3)  Chet’s reply is (as usual) on target, in “How afraid should we be?” (22 April 2009) — Excerpt:

If John is correct, and I’m not saying that he’s wrong, then we are doomed. When any attack that inflicts a few hundred casualties can bring our country down, then it’s just a matter of time until somebody does it.

Our only hope is for Americans to recognize this danger get ready now to deal with itwhen it happens. Fortunately, there are a lot of people doing disaster prep, and I’ll leave the technical details to them. However, there is one point that might be overlooked that must not be. And that is, we cannot let ourselves be frightened into doing the terrorists’ job for them

What this means is that the physical damage they can do will likely be small — remember the 3,000/month we lose to traffic accidents. So as John suggests, the real danger comes from network effects that exploit the increased fragility of our national economy. In Brave New World, he outlines some actions we can take today.

(4)  My comment

The second part of Chet’s reply is important.  9-11 was one of the most effective single military operation in the history of the world, esp on a cost-benefit basis (for more see this post).  But we are far more prepared today for any attack.  Not just have vast sums been spent on intelligence and domestic preparation (facilities, equipment) — right down to the local first responders — but equally important is the training and practice exercises.

Planning a successful attack without detection is more difficult.  Executing it without interception is more difficult.  Our response — both first and second responders plus regular citizens — will be better.

But that is the least important aspect.  More important is the cause of 9-11’s effectiveness.  It was the government that panicked.  Perhaps as a matter of policy, to build public support to invade the Middle East, expand spending on defense and national security, and in general increase government powers.  Or perhaps it was real panic.  Or perhaps this is yet another example of America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop; at the end are links for more about this).

Whatever the reason, I do not believe that the US public panicked then — or will panic in the event of another attack.  The basis for this reasoning is IMO flawed.  More importantly, the national security apparatus (including non-government experts who thrive with the Long War) believes it to be so because it is in their interest to do so.

Let’s hope I am correct.  If Robb is right — that Americans are easily panicked cowards — we are finished.  It’s just a matter of time until we crash, and rightly so.

(5)  Robb replies to Chet in “Disaster Planageddon“, 22 April 2009.  One brief relevant excerpt:  “Since 9/11, nearly every branch of government, corporation, and sizable organization has built a plan for a large scale terrorist attack. ”

Update:  Nature might do what terrorists cannot:  about the swine flu epidemic

The Pandemic Possibility, Stratfor, 27 April 2009 — See the excerpt here.

For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

  1. About America – how can we reform it?
  2. About America’s national defence strategy and machinery
  3. About Military and strategic theory

About America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop):

  1. News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2007
  2. The two tracks of discussion about the Iraq War, never intersecting, 10 November 2007
  3. Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
  4. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008
  5. What do blogs do for America?, 26 February 2008
  6. Everything written about the economic crisis overlooks its true nature, 24 February 2009
  7. The housing crisis allows America to look in the mirror. What do we see?, 8 March 2009
  8. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009



31 thoughts on “Are Americans easily panicked cowards? I think not, but many experts disagree.”

  1. Robert Petersen

    John Robb is a genius, but like Marx wrote about Hegel he is standing on his head – it is time to put his feet down to the earth in order to appreciate him. Ever since 9-11 there has been prediction of a new, devastating terrorist attack with cyberattacks, anthrax, nuclear weapons, IED’s etc. The list of possible threats simply continues to grow almost daily and it is the perfect tool for bureaucratic infighting.

    John Robb believes central government is doomed. I couldn’t agree less. Every act of scare-mongering serves the government and makes it stronger. Iraq was invaded for that purpose, the defense budget was expanded, government agencies expanded and civil liberties were curtailed. All in the name of – don’t forget that – defending freedom and democracy. People have already been put in jail and tortured in defense for freedom. Some believe there are plans ready to defend democracy by putting people in concentration camps.

    If I am right we won’t see the collapse of central government but the creation of a totalitarian democratic government. The garrison state that Harold Lasswell spoke about back in 1937 and which scared Dwight D. Eisenhower so much that he warned about the rise of the military-industrial complex. Some might say it wouldn’t work. Oh really? Take a long at North Korea – vastly isolated and impoverished – yet it has managed to survive so far. When people have to choose between chaos and law and order they would always choose the latter. Especially because it serves the interests of the power elite.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I believe all of this is grossly overstated. Extapolating from one 9-11 even that killed a few thousand to many more successful attacks is a reasonable guess, but it is only one scenario — and IMO an unlikely one. Even if correct, assuming that the attacks will be so large — and their effects even larger — so as to bring down our (or any developed nation’s) central government seems unlikely.

    It seems such scenarios are in vogue, again. Belief that one lives in the end times — apocalyptic beliefs — are common in Western history. There are so many dooms facing us. Atomic war. Pollution. Climate change. Terrorism (by so many means). Peak Oil. All big, scary — and unlikely to initiate the collapse their acolytes fear.

    The important thing is the there is little evidence that the population as a whole is infected with the doomster fear virus. Even the astonishingly intense agitprop campaign about global warming had little affect on mass opinion, relative to the effort expended. People are smarter than many elites believe.

  2. I am also in agreement with you and Chet. The Bush administration’s fetish for security at any cost did not reflect the true strength of the American people. Adversity brings people together, not drives them apart.

  3. “More important is the cause of 9-11’s effectiveness. It was the government that panicked. Perhaps as a matter of policy, to build public support to invade the Middle East, expand spending on defense and national security, and in general increase government powers.”

    I think the last sentence generally nails it. They already had invasion planning in place for Afghanistan and had repeatedly refused the Taliban’s offer to hand of OBL before and after 9/11.

    If the world’s conventional militaries went at it hammer and tongs it surely would be Armageddon. However, it is right to consider just how much internal panic/damage can be achieved by terrorist attacks. However, I have felt for years that if a concerted effort were to be made on a developed country (like the US), apart from a few scary things like blowing up buildings, shopping malls etc. the real target would be large-scale infrastructure which is extremely vulnerable. I remember the power failure in 2003 that downed most of the East Coast US and Canada, apparently caused by a small short somewhere in the States. How hard would it be to blacken large parts of the US, or poison city water supplies, or blow up large parts of the crude inventory in storage cells, natural gas respositories, fry or scramble computer networks, deliver widespread toxins via overhead missile delivery (though that is admittedly high tech). All the former do not require large militaries or expensive outlays. They are quite doable.

    Given this is the case, I remain unconvinced that America is really under all that much threat from the marginal barely second world enemies it has chosen to flex its muscle with whilst fattening defense sector and government budgets.

  4. I don’t know, believing that the end is near (and I might get to see it) is the only reason I bother putting with this rubbish state of affairs…

  5. The use of multiple focused posts and the back and forth Chet has begun covers a great deal of territory and IMO, well worth the consideration. That said, I can’t find “citizen panic” in what John Robb wrote. What I think he’s saying is that if a few well thought out “Mumbai’s” were to occur, the impact on the day-day economy, on organizational responses across the board, government and private, and on citizen attitude would be potentially severe and have high potential for further destabilization of overall environment.

    As to response to 9-11, seems there is a lot of hindsight bias evolving here. If we’re going to discuss government panic response, or “world domination” conspiracy theories along with protecting Weeki Wachee, don’t we at least have to address what the the response to President Bush on Sept 12, 2001 would have been if he began calling on INTERPOL and the UN to bring those bad boys to justice with an OBTW, I’m launching Tomahawks on Kandahar? We’d all have bought that one, right. Go George!

    I’m sorry, invisioning neither Al Gore nor John Kerry on Sept 12 leads me to believe things would be any better today – different probably, but better, no. The roots go much further back, not only in causes but also our ability to pick appropriate response.

    As to our preparedness and readiness, agree lots of money spent, some OK some awful. I’d be really careful what I took from some of those HLS exercises like TOPOFF. Most are over scripted, check in the box deals. The critical aspects of decision making at critical points – the OODA process – mostly scripted out. One way to not “do the terrorist job for them” is for not only first reponders to be trained but for the whole community to develop a “culture of preparedness.” Healty fear is not panic.. I doubt very seriously that our forefathers worried too much about scaring their children when teaching them what do do in case of Indian attack.

    You want to assume “Mumbai” can’t come to your mall or that there aren’t folks out there thinking that way, be my guest.

  6. “If I am right we won’t see the collapse of central government but the creation of a totalitarian democratic government” (# 1)

    FM finds this “grossly overstated”. Did he perhaps misread the comment? The comment poses at least a plausible outcome, that we should worry us. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that the Obama administration has backed away from any of the Bush administration’s “national security” practices — illegal military actions, obsession with Al Q’aeda, condoning of torture and illegal detention, military budgets as usual, domestic surveillance,, executive priviledge, etc. On the economic scene, it’s bail out the bankers and bondholders, punish the workers. It’s a reasonable guess that we are moving in the direction of an alliance between major corporations and government — state-controlled private enterprise, or private enterprise controlled government, according to your point of view.

    Robb’s prediction is alarmist, particularly in his acceptance of the myth that Al Q’aeda or some organization is still out there just waiting for the opportunity to bring down the “great Satan”. What if Al Q’aeda is really only interested in much more modest goals — surviving first of all, consolidating power, righting the original wrongs they charged against the West? Remember, too, al Q was originally the creation of the CIA, and there’s reason to think they’re still under its control. It’s so conventient for our military-industrial sectors to have an enemy that justifies our continuing military presence abroad.

    Robb is actually feeding the very pyschology he deplores — a culture of fear.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Evaluation of extreme outcomes is just guessing. You consider creation of a “totalitarian democratic government” as “plausible”. I consider it very unlikely. Who can say which of us is right?

    As for the rest of your comment, I strongly agree.

  7. How do you distinguish “panic” , from “real-time, reasonable protective/evasive action”?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Like pornography, we know panic when we see it. More seriously, panic is characterized by a response that is disproportionate to the danger — in terms of costs (broadly defined) compared to
    * reasonable estimates of the danger’s probability and magnitude, and
    * other dangers.
    Also, the response is based on a emotional reaction — rather than one that is thoughful and analytical.

  8. Are we easily panicked cowards? Seeing the people, living among them, I can’t help but get that impression. I personally know quite a few middle-class suburbanites (mostly women) who seem to live in a constant froth of panic about whatever scary threat-du-jour the news is pushing that week. Watching the response to 9/11 seemed to confirm this: I could viscerally feel the sense in which the newscasters and ordinary people alike seemed to gleefully anticipate handing over their civil liberties, as if immensely relieved at shedding the heavy burden of self-government.

    The Bukowski poem below says it nicely.

    Lately, though, I’ve come to believe that if the chips are _really_ down, Americans can shed their veneer of softness and rise to the occasion. Getting there might be ugly, though.

    “Earthquake”, by Charles Bukowski
    Henry Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994) was a German American poet, novelist, and short story writer. See Wikipedia.

    Americans don’t know what tragedy is—
    a little 6.5 earthquake can set them to chattering
    like monkeys—
    a piece of chinaware broken,
    the Union Rescue Mission falls down—

    6 a.m.
    they sit in their cars
    they’re all driving around—
    where are they going?

    a little excitement has broken into their
    canned lives

    stranger stands next to stranger
    chattering gibberish fear
    anxious fear
    anxious laughter …

    my baby, my flowerpots, my ceiling
    my bank account

    this is just a tickler
    a feather
    and they can’t bear it …

    suppose they bombed the city
    as other cities have been bombed
    not with an a-bomb
    but with ordinary blockbusters
    day after day,
    every day
    as has happened
    in other cities of the world?

    if the rest of the world could see you today
    their laughter would bring the sun to its knees
    and even the flowers would leap from the ground
    like bulldogs
    and chase you away to where you belong
    wherever that is,
    and who cares where it is
    as long as it’s somewhere away from

    FM note: Great material; thank you for posting!

  9. Fear, like pain, is protective. The physiology of flight or fight is the same in all sentient animals. We learn to judge what to be afraid of, and what can be treated with contempt.

    A few years back, it was reported military tanks had been sent to Heathrow, an English civilian airport, because of a terror threat. This seemed as logical to most of us, as grabbing a grass mower to rush to the aid of a heart attack victim. No explanation was given, leading to general public contempt for “terror threats “.

    Ps . Anyone here know why tanks?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thanks for reminding us of this wonderful example of panic. Light tanks (the FV107 Scimitar) were deployed to Heathrow in a bizarre 2003 incident

    Heathrow threat real says Blunkett”, BBC, 14 February 2003 – Excerpt:

    Pressure for a statement followed a day of confusion and scepticism, during which ministers angrily denied the exercise was a publicity stunt ahead of a war against Iraq. There are 450 troops and about 1,700 extra police officers patrolling at Heathrow – guarding key sites and stopping vehicles under flight paths within about eight miles of the airport.

    … Pressure for a statement followed a day of confusion and scepticism, during which ministers angrily denied the exercise was a publicity stunt ahead of a war against Iraq.

    From another BBC story the same day:

    My only sight of the Army was outside Terminal Three arrivals, where four armoured vehicles were parked. … Wab Chowdhury, 27, busy explaining the sight to his fascinated young nephew Kamil, said: “I’ve lived in London all my life and I’ve never seen a tank this close.”

    For an excellent analysis see “Missiles in Athens and tanks at Heathrow: urban security and the materialisation of ‘global’ threat“, Stuart Price, Social Semiotics, 1 March 2008 — Abstract:

    This paper uses two internationally mediated events to begin an enquiry into the character of contemporary political discourse, particularly those utterances that might be regarded as “acts of governance”. The 2 events are the appearance of Scimitar armoured vehicles at Heathrow Airport in February 2003 (described by the BBC as “a public relations disaster”, 14 March 2003), and the installation of US Patriot missiles around Athens in July 2004.

    The perspective taken in this study is that such occurrences represent armed demonstrations, a type of dramatised response produced by states that, although presented as measures designed to counter a “global” terrorist threat, may actually represent a calculated reaction to internal political dissent or other forms of domestic disorder. So, for example, the mobilisation of the Household Cavalry’s armoured units took place four days before the United Kingdom’s largest peace demonstration (called on 15 February 2003 to protest against the threat of a US-led attack on Iraq), while a series of minor explosions in the Athenian suburb of Kallithea on 4 May 2004 (G. Alexander, Independent, 5 August 2004) provided an important point of reference for those who argued for increased security during the Athens Olympics.

    The contention of this paper is that displays of military power in the United Kingdom and Greece were made in the name of security and were thus presented within the wider discursive context of the “war on terror”, depending for their political impact upon the attempt to create symbolic resonance through media forms. …

  10. CCTVandSecurity

    A lot of sense and sensibility in the writings, us foreigners do have a low opinion of the general American attitude towards seeing terrorists and disasters in everything but regardless, the articles are well worth reading and contain a lot of truth and I really think that they should be given more public voice.

  11. Phageghost: great comment. Thanks for rescuing Bukowski from oblivion. It’s a wonderful poem.

    I have a slightly different take on the reaction to 9-11. Panic was certainly part of it, and when you are panicked there has to be something to fear; but the thing I kept seeing was a weird sense of self-importance, as if all of us ordinary Americans were now the center of attention, and were being called on to play the heroic role on stage. The suburbs where I lived blossomed with flags on lawns, flags on pick-up trucks, “support our troops” signs and all that stuff. It was an orgy of sentimentality, false pride and injured innocence. Instead of fear, I would call it naivety, or cluelessness.

  12. By ordinary serendipity (aka random chance) I cancelled a flight to NYC on 9/11 the day before. I did go about a month later and although no reflection of what it might have been like immediately following the TT destruction, New York had a very soft, tender-hearted atmosphere. It was clean, people were polite, there was a tangible sense of comraderie and community in the streets that is usually missing in such a loud, brash, concrete-canyoned, siren-and-horn-blaring city. And many there at the time were remarking upon it so clear was the contrast.

    So even if panic was in effect for a while, it certainly didn’t last long. Indeed, the place felt much safer than usual, probably because there were less people hunting each other since everyone was glad to still be alive! Interesting also that consistently more than 50% of NYC residents find the official explanation lacking in substance, to say the least. Well, it is!

  13. on the other hand , before commenting on the Animal Flu Panic , ( Bush/Gaia/Slaughta-al-Islam/Drug control agencies/Neo-fascists/Russians strike again , this time with genetic engineering ? ) , one doesnt want to tempt fate …

  14. Financial Crisis

    America responded to 9-11 like somebody that got sucker punched and didn’t know where to turn to defend itself. I don’t know if that was panic on the part of the American people though. Certain people responded in a certain way, evidently, and “America” gets the credit, or the blame for it.

    I think there was a large contingent of the American public clamoring for REVENGE. There was even a RE-broadcast of the Howard Stern 9-11 show ONE YEAR LATER in which he called for “nuclear warfare”, melting of the eyes of our enemies and so forth. One could I suppose approximately determine the size of his audience at the time to get a sense of the min. # of American people who tacitly accepted this sort of emotional response to the tragedy even a year later. So that I’m skeptical whether “People are smarter than many elites believe.” (FM)

    Interesting post – I think the arguments of both Chet Richard and John Robb are both worth paying attention to.

  15. Are Americans easily-panicked cowards? (I) Depends on which America you are talking about…

    If you are speaking of that America which has outlawed diving boards at public pools for fear of lawsuits, and refuses to let children play dodge-a-ball because someone’s feelings might be hurt by being hit with the ball, yes, maybe some Americans have become cowards. If Robb is referring to a nation which willingly sends its mothers, aunts, and daughters off to fight its wars while able-boded men sit at home playing video games, yes, we’ve become cowards. The America that refuses to help itself, that cries “I’m a victim” but does nothing to help itself, has lost its backbone, and its will to survive.

    If, on the other hand, you are talking about the America that produces men like Brad Kasal (USMC Navy Cross winner in Iraq), or Jason Dunham (USMC postumous MOH winner), or Mike Monsour (USN posthumous MOH winner), you’re talking about the bravest people around. Pilot Sully Sullenberger is about as heroic as they come, but he laughs his life-saving accomplishments off as “just doing his job.” Only a courageous nation keeps sending forth young people willing to serve as police officers on the meanest streets imagineable for pittance of a salary. Nor is courage only physical; devoted teachers, nurses, scientists, labor tirelessly for little money and even less recognition. This is the America that says “OK, times are tough – what can I do about it?” and believes in independence, self-reliance and initiative. It isn’t afraid to face tomorrow, even though no one knows what the new day will bring.

    The really scary part is not that both types of people exist, but the steadily changing ratio between the former and the latter.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I understand your point, but you miss the point. America is a collective, not a unitary entity. It’s like a ship, a assembly of parts. It floats or sinks as a whole. Every part need not be great, but its survival depends on its aggregate performance.

    Correction: I missed the last sentence. “steadily changing ratio between the former and the latter” is the key point on which much depends.

  16. Are Americans easily-panicked cowards? (II)

    Let’s reframe the question; undoubtedly, there are heroes and cowards and everything in between in this country, just as in all of humanity. Regarding bravery, no one knows how one will react in a crisis until it happens. This has been well-known in the military for years, that the toughest man on the parade ground is often not the toughest, bravest or most effective in action. The wallflower can morph into a tiger under duress, and visa versa.
    I’d argue that bravery is in fact partly a phenomenon of training and preparation. Except with the mentally ill or the naive, combat induces potentially crippling fear into all soldiers; the difference between one who fulfills his mission and one who cowers in his hole is not always one of character or biological make-up, but of preparation. Humans generally fear the unknown; make it known and they will fear it less. Training for any stressful situation should be designed with this truth in mind, whether it is soldiering or something else being done.

    If Americans appeared to panic after 9-11, perhaps it is because so few of them have experienced a terrorist attack before, or for that matter even seen violence up-close-and-personal. Heaven forbid, if such attacks were to become routine, people would harden up and learn coping skills. Look at London during the Blitz, or any one of the dozens of German cities leveled by heavy bombers in WWII; those who survived adapted, though not always without lasting psychological scars. We would be no different. The Israelis live under near constant threat of surprise attack, but have hardened themselves mentally and training for it. That’s the critical difference between us and them.

    Systemic effects of terrorist or other 4GW-style actions have to be cosidered in assessing whatever “panic” takes place. The Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber was dramatically effective during the Blitzkreig not so much because of its bomb load, but because of its psychological impact – the screaming siren of its dive, the apparently out-of-nowhere nature of its attacks, these were what panicked the population of France and the Low Countries in 1940. The 9-11 attacks were designed to do the same thing, and they achieved their aim and then some. We need not only to harden ourselves mentally and psychologically, against would-be attackers, we must also decouple and decentralize our society at least to some extent, such that future catastrohic attacks, natural disasters, or epidemics do not have such powerful second- and third-order effects. Think of it like rip-stop fabric in a parachute canopy; the fabric is sewn in panels so that if a tear happens, it is (hopefully) localized and does not spread such that the parachute fails.

    John Barry’s “The Great Influenza,” about the deadly global flu pandemic of 1918-1919, notes that modern scholars believe that this event pushed the United States closer to anarchy than any event before or since, that it posed the greatest risk to civil society ever faced by America. There was great fear, cowardice, and even panic during the height of the crisis, but great courage and resourcefulness, too. This may be a historical signpost for future crises, and a guide of what to expect.

    Robb’s thesis that only a few hundred casualties can bring our nation down is overly pessimistic IMHO. I also agree that 9-11 illustrated the propensity of (certain segments of) our government to panic, rather than a tendancy to it among the general population. The media played “civilian panic” for all it was worth. Let us not forget the golden rule of reporters “If it bleeds, it leads.” Everyday people are a hell of a lot tougher than these media noddleheads think.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The core question is the accuracy of the oft- repeated “Americans appeared to panic after 9-11.” I believe this to be totally false. The government panicked, or appeared to do so.

    As for John Barry’s book, it seems somewhat far-fetched IMO. To say it “pushed the US closer to anarchy than any event before or since” might just mean the US has never been close to anarchy. Even if true, with US deaths of 500,000 to 675,000 the 1918 pandemic provides little support for theories that a terrorist attack with hundreds (or even a few thousand) deaths will produce panic. Plagues are far more fearful things than a (for example) a terrorist bombing, as the danger lies in the future — and is of unknowable magnitude and duration.

  17. # 15 : very well said. Thank you.

    FM: I am not convinced (yet) that the government panicked but they sure dealt the panic card to the populace with a willing media and political blitz.

    I agree that the American people generally did not panic but a large majority were quick to embrace using massive destructive power against sovereign nations including large swathes of civilian populations thousands of miles away in order to exact vengeance. Their pride was insulted so they wanted to slap the little people back down for daring to challenge the USA, no matter if 99% of the people they have been killing since then had nothing to do with the attacks and many of them have blown to bits before even being able to identify America on a world map, let alone NYC or the Twin Towers.

  18. First, Pete, excellent insert of sanity.

    This Post by FM is centered around American citizen cowardice and panic is it not? So, second, ignored once, I ask again, where do either Chet Richards or John Robb introduce either term?

    Fairly easily done would be introduction of Mumbai-type multiple shooter teams into malls across the country in no more than quasi time sequenced manner. Training would have to be minimal, success unimportant, even if caught before actual attack. Issue would be appearance of “terror created.” Only an idiot would then allow the teenagers out for a little mall socializing. Cowaradice or panic not at issue just pure common sense. Robb’s point being that by time this resolved, financial death spiral underway.

    Probably the best reading on this subject is 40 year RAND terrorism researcher, Brian Michael Jenkins in “Unconquerable Nation” – which OBTW, is in agreement with Chet about not doing the job to ourselves, AND that some of our responses to 9-11 have been wrong headed. His point is it is critical to engage the community, educate them, get them involved, play on their strengths (as indeed some here have indicated), and create resiliency vice victimization.

    But here’s the rub – ask your local first responder leadership – the issue is NOT cowardice or panic – it is complacency. PWH advisor, Sheriff in my county, has told me repeatedly, the people will only listen to us for a short while after an event on “getting prepared” then they just tune out. So one what basis can you follow Jenkins’ recommendations?

    Reflect on this by the “Cat-5 General,” Russ Honore -“It’s time for America to wake up to this reality. Our task as Americans is to be ready. We need to create a culture of preparedness in America. Our forefathers knew how to take care of themselves, their families, and the communities in which they lived. As citizens, we need to be prepared to do that same – we cannot wait on the federal government to do it for us. In this new normal, we have only two options: We can exist in fear and dependency, or we can do the responsible thing and live comfortably in a culture of preparedness.”

    I’m sorry but much of this post/comments seem to be wide of the real issue. As key example, I’ll be damned if I know what this (appears a core thread of this post)means – “So those towers came down apocalyptically and it was horrible — and we couldn’t live with it. In response, we invaded a country (“no safe havens for terrorists”), rather than simply going after the group that had acted against us.”??? “simply going after…” ???????????????????
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thirty to fifty thousand people die annually in traffic accidents. US deaths from the 1918 pandemic were 500,000 to 675,000. This thread discusses the US economy crashing because a few hundred or thousand people die in a terrorist attack? It evokes images of cattle stampeeding from a lightening bolt, or leemings rushing into the ocean (the latter is a Disny myth, btw). I don’t think so. IMO neither the American psyche nor economy is that fragile.

    Another perspective: “The CDC estimates that 36,000 people in the United States die each year of influenza-related illnesses. And in spite of this, we in the medical community still have a hard time convincing people to get their flu shots.” (source)

    I don’t understand what you are attempting to say in your last sentence. There is no substantial evidence that Iraq had any involvement with al Qaeda, let alone 9-11. Englehardt sensibly asks why we did not “simply go after the group that acted against us” — that is, why not focus our efforts on al Qaeda and its allies.

    Note: The RAND study is “Unconquerable Nation – Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves“, Brian Michael Jenkins, 2006, 254 pages.

  19. RE: comment #18 and “’simply going after…’ ???????????????????”

    How Bush Was Offered Bin Laden and Blew It“, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch, 1 November 2004 — Excerpt:

    George Bush, the man whose prime campaign plank has been his ability to wage war on terror, could have had Osama bin Laden’s head handed to him on a platter on his very first day in office, and the offer held good until February 2 of 2002. This is the charge leveled by an Afghan American who had been retained by the US government as an intermediary between the Taliban and both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

    Kabir Mohabbat is a 48-year businessman in Houston, Texas. Born in Paktia province in southern Afghanistan, he’s from the Jaji clan (from which also came Afghanistan’s last king). Educated at St Louis University, he spent much of the 1980s supervising foreign relations for the Afghan mujahiddeen, where he developed extensive contacts with the US foreign policy establishment, also with senior members of the Taliban.

    After the eviction of the Soviets, Mohabbat returned to the United States to develop an export business with Afghanistan and became a US citizen. Figuring in his extensive dealings with the Taliban in the late 1990s was much investment of time and effort for a contract to develop the proposed oil pipeline through northern Afghanistan.

    In a lengthy interview and in a memorandum Kabir Mohabbat has given us a detailed account and documentation to buttress his charge that the Bush administration could have had Osama bin Laden and his senior staff either delivered to the US or to allies as prisoners, or killed at their Afghan base. As a search of the data base shows, portions of Mohabbat’s role have been the subject of a number of news reports, including a CBS news story {“On The Scene: Taliban Talks” by Alan Pizzey} aired September 25, 2001. This is the first he has made public the full story.

    It was that simple. The USG chose not to go after him both before and after 911 as I said above. Why is up for you/all of us to consider. But unless this article is totally bogus, which I doubt, it leaves more than a few of your question marks above hanging over the entire sorry affair.

  20. Fabius, I guess we must agree to disagree on what Robb is saying, In short you say “crash” I read “starting down a death spiral.” They are different. Fighting past complaceny for Russ Honore’s “culture of preparedness” mitigates against both.

    I respectfully disagree strongly with your take on Englehardt’s statement. When you recommend stuff, I usually go read. Over time my impression of his work is that is basis for much he says is anything George Bush did was ignorant and wrong headed, starting from the moment he got the 9-11 input. I’ve read that piece over and over – Englehardt certainly believes going into Iraq was wrong – as do many of us – but he also believes 9-11 was a policing problem only. I simply don’t know who or how that takes place.

    There appears to be this thought thing that there are either wars which should have capital W’s or crime or peace. For all the writing and discussing 4GW, a lot of people still seem to ignore the emergence of “war amongst the people” by non-state players with all the gray areas of rules, organizational structures, and how to address. For this reason, I strongly disagree with those who would make 4GW and insurgency the same thing.

    Very frankly, you can easily read in to some of the comments and to T-dispatch” there is no 4GW, no real jihadist, no people with agendas opposed violently to America, only bad Repubilcans.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand the import of your last paragraph. An overlay of partisan politics affects most analysis. This is a commonplace of history. It is easily seen in Jonathan Swift’s works (1667-1745), and his equivalents today. Some examples of folks who are both brilliant observers and partisan hacks —
    * On the left: Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and Lewis Lapham.
    * On the right: Mark Steyn and Ann Coulter.

    If you are uninterested in the partisan game (like me), than read through it. The dangerous alternative is to filter out information from sources disagreeing with you. I prefer to ignore the political leanings of the source and focus on the content.

    “In short you say ‘crash’ I read ‘starting down a death spiral.'”

    Robbs speaks of “radically reduce already depressed revenues”, ” drive costs for security through the roof”, and “Firms would wink out of existence at an alarming rate.” He says “Returns on investment (ROIs) from any attack of this type could potentially reach $100 million in economic loses for every $1 in attack costs.” If the attack cost $10,000 (i.e., airfare, lodging, meals, and equipment), the economic loss would be a trillion dollars — 14% of US GDP! That’s a crash. A big one.

    “I respectfully disagree strongly with your take on Englehardt’s statement.’

    With what aspect do you disagree?

  21. Fabius, in answer to your last. I disagree with his “invading rather than going after” statement as related “only” to Iraq. My impression is that Englehardt believes ALL the military effort everywhere is wrong and he sees “going after” as something other than both operations in Iraq AND Afghanistan. Repeat, how do you do that?

    And that leads to the “how do states fight and win against a 4GW opponent?” question. And if you have chosen to define 4GW “only” in terms of insurgency, you cannot come up with a workable answer, since by definition you have misdefined the problem IMHO.
    Fabius Maximus replies: What does Englehardt say that suggests that “ALL the military effort everywhere is wrong.” I have read his work for several years and corresponded with him by email, and do not recall anything that suggests this.

    “how do states fight and win against a 4GW opponent? …if you have chosen to define 4GW “only” in terms of insurgency, you cannot come up with a workable answer, since you have misdefined the problem”

    As has been explained on this site at some length, the misunderstanding of 4GW results IMO from conceptual errors of those writing about it (here, not those on the other side). The concept is based on several of Martin van Creveld’s writings, esp decline of the State and non-trinitarian conflicts. Non-trin conflicts were simplified to “war”, and things went bonkers from there. For more on this see A solution to 4GW – the introduction.

    People talk about fighting foreign insurgencies for good reason: we we were fighting two of them, and since early 2007 we are still fighting one, as described in The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace). The solution is simple: don’t do it. For details see this post: Why do we lose 4th generation wars?. Chet Richards provides an almost definitive explanation in his book If We Can Keep It (available here).

    As I wrote on 27 February 2009:

    Smashing Bin Laden’s Afghanistan base after 9/11 and demonstrating that state support for al Qaeda had unpleasant consequences were reasonable and achievable goals. That this makes us obligated or entitled to rule Iraq or Afghanistan (explicitly or through a puppet regime) is delusional, athwart the tide of history since WWII.

    For both Iraq and Afghanistan a more valid model would have been, imo:
    1. Smash the regime, as an example to others of what happens when you cross the global hegemon.
    2. Set up a new regime. (”You! Congratulations, Mr. President.”)
    3. Leave. (”Here is a check, some $ to help you get started. Write and tell us how things are going. If you are good, we will send more money.”)

  22. ‘Seneca’ wrote ” Al Q was originally the creation of the CIA ..and there is reason to think they’re still under their control ” googled this detail and found “Who Is Osama Bin Laden?“, Michel Chossudovsky (Prof Economics, U of Ottawa), Center for Research on Globalization, 12 September 2001. And others similar. (I’m a sucker for 9/11 conspiracy theories because I just cant understand how those towers fell into such a small neat footprint.) Wondered if FM’s blog had articles on this subject as good as those now on CO2/global warming , and if he/they could run them up again .
    Fabius Maximus replies: The official reports on 9-11 were maddeningly incomplete; the mass of stories surrounding them bizarre. The cell phone calls from aircraft, the rapid disposal of the wreckage, the collapse of WTC 7 (from large amounts of fuel oil stored there), the contradictory data about the hijackers — more evidence that our government can neither adequately investigage anything or tell the truth about the simplest matters. Hopefully my grandchildren will learn what happened (along with the truth about the Kennedy assination), but probably not.

    As for the CRG article, it is par for their site. Large leaps of logic, poor sourcing, inspired guesswork — worth reading only as a source of links and leads for someone doing their own research. In the case of Chossudovsky’s article, he never consisders that Pakistan’s ISI might not be CIA robots — but smart people using the CIA (and American resources) to further their own plans. This is typical of Western analysis (both conservatives and liberals), who too-often assume third-world people must be pawns of the big smart westerners.

  23. Fabius, thanks for another lively discussion.

    You wrote in response to my comments #15: “I understand your point, but you miss the point. America is a collective, not a unitary entity. It’s like a ship, a assembly of parts. It floats or sinks as a whole. Every part need not be great, but its survival depends on its aggregate performance.”

    Have I missed the point? I don’t believe so. Let us acknowledge that our nation is a collective enterprise in the sense that a ship is; all hands (citizens) must do their jobs or the ship (of state) founders on the rocks. However, what is a collective – a crew, if you will – except a group of individuals? The individual is the smallest unit of society, the bedrock upon which everything else is built – the family, the community, commmercial enterprises, government, and so on. A society which produces capable people of high moral character is not promised good or just government; however, one which is incapable of producing them (or too few of them) is almost assuredly promised a corrupt and unjust government.

    And the analogy of a ship can be taken too far; at sea, the crew of a ship going into battle or headed into a storm cannot run away – it must work together or perish. Participation in our republic is at least partly volitional, a matter of choice, as you have noted many times.
    Change the ratio of capable citizens to sheep too unfavorably, and all of the systems analysis and government social engineering in the world won’t save us, or the American experiment.
    Fabius Maximus replies: My apologies, I overlooked the last sentence. Your comment “but the steadily changing ratio between the former and the latter” is exactly the key point, on which much depends.

  24. Nature might do what terrorists cannot: about the swine flu epidemic

    “THE PANDEMIC POSSIBILIT”, Stratfor, 27 April 2009 — Excerpt:

    It is difficult to avoid catching the flu, but one way to decrease the odds is to avoid exposure to others, particularly in crowds, and to stay out of the office if they begin to experience symptoms — and for several days after symptoms cease. In the case of a pandemic, that advice would almost certainly be given.

    That in turn could drive a stake into the heart of consumer spending, which is already more than a little weak. If the disease — or popular perception of the disease — were to reach pandemic proportions, consumers could begin to view an impulse trip to the mall as potentially a life-or-death choice. Discretionary spending would collide with discretion, as individuals started to forgo trips that would bring them into contact with large numbers of people – not just at major sporting events and public rallies, but also movies and restaurants.

    Depending on the extent of the virus’s spread, it could directly affect production: Offices and factories would shut down in areas where the flu was particularly rampant, amid efforts to control it. International travel and trade might well be affected, both voluntarily (as people avoided travel and refused to buy goods from countries heavily infected) and involuntarily (as states acted to protect their populations).

    The greatest effect would be psychological. In a world where consumer confidence has already been deeply affected by the economic downturn, a pandemic would dramatically darken the mood of the international system, with potential impact on governments.

    We are not trying to be alarmist. As stated, we do not really know what these swine flu infections and deaths mean, and as with many other scares, this situation might dissipate in a matter of days. There have been plenty of scares about avian strains of the flu virus breaking through the human-to-human transmission barrier, and so far they have been unfounded. Even the widely hyped outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which spread rapidly from China to a number of other countries in 2002 and 2003, ultimately was contained. Fewer than 800 fatalities from SARS occurred worldwide, with only eight confirmed cases (and zero deaths) in the United States, despite widespread concern that the disease could severely impact the American populace.

    But timing can be everything. We are acutely aware that if a deadly flu pandemic were to strike right now — whether actually proving to be, or just creating the perception of, a rapidly spreading and lethal disease — the effect on economic recovery could quickly become dramatic, and therefore the nature of politics in many countries would shift. This is not a geopolitical event in itself, but given the worst-case scenarios, it well might have a geopolitical effect.

  25. Must have missed in our other dialogue but #19 – Andrew Cockburn as your ref??? Has the man ever said one word that didn’t trash America?

    If you’re going to use this and open this line then you need take a look at the Clinton activities in this regard. Viewing whatever Bush did or did not do as a single point attacking my “?????” doesnt fly. Plus, even if the story is true, AQ is/was a supposedly “network” no? Cutting off head doesn’t end the problem. “Simply going after…” is a disengenious statement. Again, HOW?

    On PWH previously:
    “Cyrus Nowrasteh is the author and producer of the ABC/ Walt Disney docudrama “The Path to 9/11,” a two-part miniseries loosely based on the 9/11 Commission Final Report issued July 22, 2004, and the 2003 book The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It by journalists John Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Mitchell. With few exceptions, most of the TV and print media launched a campaign to discredit the six hour mini-series. Six U.S. senators sent a letter to Disney/ABC threatening revocation of their station licenses. Why?

    And yet, Michael Scheuer, former chief of the Osama bin Laden unit at the CIA’s counter-terrorist center, e-mailed ABC News in the midst of the controversy to insist that “the core of the movie is irrefutably true.” Steven Emerson, one of the foremost terrorism experts in the world, a man who has testified before and briefed Congress dozens of times on terrorism, said that ‘The Path to 9/11 is 100 percent accurate.'”

    We’ve had several chances to get OBL, but???

    I keep feeling like I’m forced into being a Bush defender, which very frankly I am not, but “George Bush did it” is becoming the playing the “Nazi Card” du jour. The issue is not what he did wrong, but that if that becomes the only line of pursuit, we’re not going to look under a lot of other rocks and miss some critical lessons to be applied.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand most of this. Analysis of politics is mostly done by partisans. There are few neutrals, no equivalent to the IMF’s relatively impartial economic analysis. If you wait for Bill Kristol to verify Cockburn’s analysis, you will wait a long time. I prefer to rely on analysis by the Archangel Gabriel, but he does not return my calls.

    As for Cockburn, I have read his work for a quarter-century and found his sources of better than average quality (his analysis is not-so-hot). My first exposure to his writings was doing a workup on his then-new book “The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Regime” (1983). He was far more accurate than the famous “Team B” (released in 1976) analysts — many of whom went on to fame despite their stunningly wrong assessment of the USSR’s capabilities (e.g., Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Nitze).

  26. I find a good deal of the cited commentary to be off-putting.

    First, while it’s true that ‘merely’ 3000 persons were killed in 9/11 it is also true that the Towers themselves were as much an economic target as anything. AQ’s aim was certainly to inspire terror and [ab]reaction, but also to do incalculable damage to our economy, and in that sense they were of unique miltiary value.

    Our response to the attacks may thus be considered to have been measured, not outsized.

    Secondly, the stated aims of the Bush Admin were to change a state of affairs that no longer held benefit for the US or the Western sphere, and that I believe to have been correct and supportable. Changing a status quo which produces terrorism is a nebulous and difficult business at best.
    Unfortunately, we had little in the way of human intelligence assets in the region, having decided to rely on diplomacy and technology to support our interests. The quickest way to develop those assets where you need them is to, as military folk will tell you, start a war.

    Nobody would prefer it to have worked that way, but it has. I wouldn’t have preferred for us to abandon the second point and to minimize the effects of the first, but apparently that is what’s going to happen.

  27. Re # 25: agree with FM here that main items of interest in the article were not his anti-Bush slant (although to be fair in the article he also points out how the Clinton administration didn’t follow through on the deal they had which included having the Taliban take him out) but the source. I am not aware of any determined counter-article to the material presented by that source which is why I suspect it is largely accurate.

    Of course IF it is largely accurate, it will go against many of our core beliefs about government, security, democracy, military etc. etc. etc. And as we have seen in this blog in recent threads about narrative etc. (albeit this is hardly a new theme in public discourse) belief trumps fact nearly every time in that we process fact through the filter of belief. In the West we tend to have relegated the entire concept of ‘belief’ to something that exists only in the religious/faith domain but this is just shallow thinking. You see it all the time in terms of how various proponents of X or Y (global warming, the infallibility of pharmaceutical companies, the inherent fairness of government – or capitalism for that matter, on and on.)

    So you might be right: the entire subject matter and source material in the article is rubbish. But given there was no instant or later authoritative rebuttal (at least I have never seen one), IF it is largely true it raises questions. And questions about the thrust of your original point that going ‘after them’ was no easy thing and that Bush, now you are saying, was rightly trying to change a paradigm in which terror was gaining the upper hand.

    Some would say that we have used far more and far more widespread terror, in which case we are promulgating it rather than reducing it,but that’s another topic.

  28. ” A beleif is irrational if solid evidence could not alter it ”
    Quote from wozzizname

  29. The definition of ‘solid’ is all too often dependent upon belief/trust in that no matter what data is gathered and how, there are always attendant interdependencies (aka variables) which cannot be definitively (solidly) included. The scientific quantum crowd confronted this decades ago (also in Goedel’s infamous theorem) and have since been ignored because the implications go completely against (then and still currently) dominant materialist beliefs.

    Certainly in the realm of public affairs, relationships, the arts etc. there is no such thing as ‘solid evidence’ anyway.

  30. Here is a Tanks To Heathrow …

    According to the BBC , the Egyptian Gov is to slaughter all the pigs in Egypt , to control Swine Flu .

  31. Pingback: A safety checklist for America during the Ebola panic. #1: are we cowards? | Ahaa

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