Matt Yglesias bills yesterday’s attempted terrorist attack as an “a pretty unserious plot,” unlikely, even if successful, to cause any long-term damage:
Ultimately, it does no favors to anyone to blow this sort of thing out of proportion. The United States could not, of course, be “devastated” by anything resembling this scheme. We ought to be clear on that fact. We want to send the message around the world that this sort of vile attempt to slaughter innocent people is not, at the end of the day, anything resembling a serious challenge to American power.
While he’s surely right that isolated attacks on single airliners will never present, as he says, “a serious challenge to American power,” this sort of analysis ignores history, and mistakes the number of ways in which a nation can be affected by her enemies. September 11th was not, of its own accord, truly devastating. Our greatest metropolis lost its tallest building, the Pentagon lost 1/5th of its circumference, and 3,000 people lost their lives. Tragic, yes, but no threat to America’s existence. Still, the events plunged the nation into a panic, threatened a travel-based economy, prompted sweeping legal changes, and generally shattered our notions of invulnerability. Terrorism doesn’t depend upon a loss of infrastructure, or a loss of lives, for its effect. The simple fact of a successful attack, regardless of its scope, can profoundly alter the world.
Consider the sack of Rome in 410 C.E. True, Rome lost much of her infrastructure and the spoils of a millennium, but the government was under no threat (the Western Empire’s capital had already moved to Ravenna), and the invading Visigoths departed immediately. But the event sent shockwaves throughout the modern world. Rome was not invincible.
It’s good not to live in fear of our enemies. But we should appreciate what they’re capable of, the better to prevent them from altering our way of life, should individual attacks prove successful. Terrorists can strike individual targets, and they can kill, but they can’t destroy our nation, and they can’t break our spirit, unless we let them. To prevent that result, we should steel ourselves against fear, but be aware of its potency.