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Sep 13, 2011

9/11: Should America move on?

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,

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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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BOOK GIVEAWAYfollow this link to be in the running for one of two copies of Meg Mundell’s Black Glass. Entries close midday Thursday 15 September 2011.

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