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9/11: Should America move on?

South Pool, 9/11 memorial, Ground Zero

It’s a very brave or very insensitive American who would publicly question his nation’s entire 9/11 memorial project on the day of the tenth anniversary. Yet just a few days ago, on the morning of 11 September, US economist Robin Hanson began his internationally popular blog, Overcoming Bias, by complaining that half the comics in his Sunday paper “are not-funny 9/11 memorials”.

I did my own mawkish 9/11 ‘memorialising’ last time (the video On the transmigration of souls), so I too was guilty of dishing out largely uninformative and non-analytical content on this occasion. But Professor Hanson has a much bigger message (the links are his):

In the decade since 9/11 over half a billion people have died worldwide. A great many choices could have delayed such deaths, including personal choices to smoke less or exercise more, and collective choices like allowing more immigration….

Yet, to show solidarity with these three thousand victims, we have pissed away three trillion dollars ($1 billion per victim), and trashed long-standing legal principles. And now we’ll waste a day remembering them, instead of thinking seriously about how to save billions of others. I would rather we just forgot 9/11.

Do I sound insensitive? If so, good — 9/11 deaths were less than one part in a hundred thousand of deaths since then, and don’t deserve to be sensed much more than that fraction. If your feelings say otherwise, that just shows how full fricking far your mind has gone.

Just to really drive home his point, Professor Hanson updated his post with a link to news agency Aljazeera, which featured an article Let’s forget 9/11 by American Tom Engelhardt, author of  The American way of war: how Bush’s wars became Obama’s and The end of victory culture.

Not surprisingly, given this was 11 September, some comments from readers were pretty direct:

This will, sadly, be the last time I read your blog.

You, Mr. Hanson, are an idiot. You have no conception of mythos or national dignity. Good bye, sir.

Robin, you’re “fricking” out of your mind.

A co-worker used to have a little sign in her office: Most people know how to remain silent. Few people know when.

Some other comments took issue with his basic argument:

Insensitivity will not stop people from being affected by some tragedies more than others.

Human nature is to attach greater significance to things that are close to us and have evoked personal feelings, rather than basing it on magnitude alone. And there is nothing wrong with that. Your moralizing is no better than the ridiculous moralizing that has gone on in the past ten years in reaction to 9/11. Everyone has their story to tell; yours involves looking down on the natural human reaction to a dramatic event. That is all.

Defence against terrorists, not solidarity with victims, explains the “pissing away” of three trillion dollars.

You cannot reasonably expect this sort of brazen and demented contrarianism to induce readers in search of a new moral framework to think, “hrm, maybe I’ll give this utilitarianism thing a whirl and see where it takes me!”

Might as well forget about the Holocaust too. In the bigger scheme of things, what were only 6M Jews?

But quite a few comments were supportive of Professor Hanson’s view:

I think what Robin is saying is that the response to 9/11 didn’t do any of the things that the “leaders” who pushed those responses said those responses were going to do. What those responses did do was piss away $3 Trillion (and counting), kill a bunch of US soldiers, and squander the “good will” of the rest of the world while committing great evils; the killing of many Iraqi civilians, the strengthening of al Qaeda and the bankrupting of the US economy.

If only one 1/100 of the social capital spent on 9/11 remembrance was spent on organ markets… I would expect more than 100x as many lives would have been saved compared to any anti-terrorist measures implemented because of 9/11.

I agree with the conclusion (that our response was extraordinarily excessive) if not the argument (that the underlying problem is that our emotional reactions were not based on some strict universalist utilitarian calculation).

From 1983 to 2005, about 3,600 Americans were killed by terrorists. About 453,000 were killed by drunk drivers. We’ve spent what, 2 trillion dollars in the war on terrorism? So have we also spent 200 trillion dollars preventing drunken driving?

This a blog written by a rational economist. Numbers matter. 300 million “mourners” 10 years later is NOT the same as family members remembering. 3000 people killed in an attack are not the same as 6 million Jews and another 6 million assorted gypsies, homosexuals, and so on killed.

Professor Hanson’s readers might be able to line up on either side of the line in an orderly manner, but for me both sides of the argument have appeal. It’s not either/or – both sides of the brain seem to count. However as someone who demonstrated on the streets of Melbourne in 2003 against the impending invasion of Iraq, I think US actions post 9/11 have been horrific. The understandable emotional reaction of Americans to the tragedy of 9/11 has been very expensive in dollars and lives. I’m with the commenter who said “it feels much more like propaganda today than anything else”. On reflection, I wish I hadn’t posted that ‘memorial’ video without some explanation.

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  • 1
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me his gravest offense was his wording. It seems he could have made a solid argument against the war in Iraq and against trashing legal principals, here I’m assuming he’s referring to the introduction of the Patriot Act, as well as sanctioning torture, (providing it’s not called torture), which are both arguments I’m sure many people agree with; instead he’s ranted offensively in a public forum on the day of the most deadly single attack on US soil in history. Is it really surprising people are upset?

  • 2
    Liam
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    The good old 9/11 band aid, everything is ok under the 9/11 bandaid! How bout we have a memorial day for all innocent Iraqi family’s that are killed every week by filthy drones!

  • 3
    Johnyboy
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    On the simple face of things. The economist Robin Hanson is really spot on. Its pretty funny that the media make such a big fuss over 9/11. I have to disagree with the comments from liam about the killing of civilians by american drones as innocent. War is hell. The brutally of the sadam regime in iraq was notorious for human rights voilations. I do not beleive the statistics that show otherwise. If the americans did kill more iraqies over small time period then iraqies killed themselves over the long period. The whole middle east is brutal because of the legacy of fedeual systems that the western countries had to fight and destroy in there own countries. Human rights is a new concept and its only a few hundred years old. I even I suspect that alot of deaths are not reported world wide even in western countries.

    The problem with the wars is I am not sure if they are just or not. I think only with hindsight can you really know if the wars were worth the trouble. I think its for historians to show this. The iraq we know today is still a very new country and afghanistan is still trying to become a country. The question is can these people make up a society with freedom or will they go back to the same brutally that they are use too. If so it was a lost cause.

    There are arguments may be valid about the historical facts of war. The USA destroyed Sadam in the hope that by doing it earily they would not have to fight a nuclear armed Sadam later. Is this logical or true? I am not sure.

    An american general Pershing stated that the world war 1 was not a completed war and that because of this that his children would be in another war. He was right.

    If hilter was stopped when he invaded poland , world war 2 would of been a shorter less destructive war. I believe it now and in the future. I think this lesson was used in the wars in iraq. Either way whatever we believe really does not matter.

  • 4
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    It is extraordinary how an intense collective sharing of grief and outrage can create a shared memory of such power.

    I was in Ypres on 9/11, spending the day as people do in Ypres, looking at the mass graves of pointless deaths, perusing the brilliant and powerful Flanders Field museum. I didn’t realise 9/11 had happened until I got back to the hostel; and although I met several worried (grounded) Americans in the next few weeks, I was sufficiently disconnected from my friends, family, politics, and the news, that I didn’t realise the hold on the imagination 9/11 had until I got back to Australia.

    I have a lot of trouble, contextualising 9/11 for that reason. It doesn’t feel any more tangible to me that any other historical event I didn’t experience but have read about and seen the evidence of – like major 20thC wars. Which is also where Prof. Hanson is wrong, not from a policy perspective, but from a human perspective, the scars of 9/11 are on the people who experienced the collective response, not just the victims, or people close to them. To argue against that grief is akin to denying them their victimhood, even if society might be better off if they didn’t have it.

  • 5
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I think this article throws some light on why people connect with 9/11 more intensely that with much bigger catastrophes – Statistical numbering: why millions can die and we don’t care.

  • 6
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Alan, interesting article, but my experience makes me think it is more akin to being in a crowd. That is, people connect to 9/11, not because they were involved, or responded strongly, but because they were watching collectively with many other people whose own emotions intensified their own. My experience, by contrast, was of an observer at home by themselves; I react to it at a much lower level, without the external emotions because I was (by and large) by myself for months afterwards. And that is despite having been in NY only 4 weeks earlier, and then travelling alone in an environment of heightened security for several months after.

  • 7
    Johnyboy
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    I think Alan found an interesting perspective but I am thinking that its not the whole truth but it opens up more feelings. I feel that when I hear about millions starving. In my mind I think that why cant the million or more help each other. They all have families and friends and such. Where are these people? What about the millions that have died in the english speaking world for the rights we have today? There was cromwell and magna carta and the american revolution and all these things that helped shaped australia. Australia is an idea like all the other places. It took time to develop. I think who came to help australia? Who came to help us? hmmmm. It might be selfish and stupid but thats what comes to mind.

    I do know that western countries are responsible for the mess in africa and other countries. How? The western companies go there and exploit the resources just like they exploit us. The world is a jungle and we are the prey and predators :P

  • 8
    JB
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    Alan, I’m sorry, but your timing is so wrong.

    Every death in the world at the hands of someone else is a tragedy.

    As a mother, I feel for any parent who loses a child and seeing that photo of Robert Peraza who lost his son on 9/11 – hunched over the new memorial – it made me so deeply sad.

    Whether someone loses a child through the acts of September 11, or because they were caught in a roadside bomb in Iraq, or killed by a drunk driver – my heart breaks for them all. And I hope to god that I never, ever have to walk in their shoes. Anyone who loses a child never wants them to be forgotten – they want them to be remembered (particularly on an anniversary). And they do not want them to have died in vain.

    This is where the world is going wrong – so many people are so damn selfish. We care more about voicing our opinion / typing our blogs; than stepping back and saying ‘Whether I agree with what happened post September 11 – today is a day that people are mourning and I will respect that and their pain and will not make it any worse for them’. That is noble; that is honourable; unselfish too. Too many people love the sound of their own voices and are more concerned about typing up a blog and seeing their name up in lights.

    Have this discussion another day. Not now (the 10th anniversary – any grief counsellor will tell you this is a really raw time for anyone dealing with something like this???) Argue about the reaction to September 11 another week – preferably another month altogether.

    Maybe we should tell Daniel Morcombe’s parents that they should move on too? I mean, there are kids that get kidnapped by paedophiles around the world all the time hey (CHOKE!!!!)

    I’m really saddened by this blog.

  • 9
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    JB, I deliberately posted this on September 13, not September 11. I posted it on an Australian blog, not a US one. I’m an Australian looking on from a distance, not a citizen of the country that suffered the attack.

    Perhaps not the day itself, but an anniversary is an appropriate and proper time to consider the horrors that all parties to this conflict have visited on each other. I believe our sense of humanity should compel us to think about it and learn from it.

    I think it’s also worth noting that grieving families in Iraq might wish for such discussion at this time.

  • 10
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

    Paul Krugman’s column in the NY Times on 11 September, The years of shame. And Ross Gittins column on 14 September in The Age, A vast cost in feeling just a little more secure.

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