After the Coronavirus, Don’t Repeat 9/11’s Mistakes

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Americans are still living with the botched response to terrorism in 2001. The post-pandemic world needs better.

Foreign Policy

America last overhauled its national security paradigm in the wake of 9/11. In the months and years that followed the attacks, government officials attempted to eradicate the threat of terrorism, fundamentally transforming both domestic and international policy for the worse. Nearly 20 years later, Americans still live with the consequences of those choices, from unending warfare to increasing global instability to ever diminishing U.S. influence.

The destruction caused by COVID-19 could, and should, force the United States finally to move out of 9/11’s shadow. Worryingly, however, Washington’s early choices in responding to the novel coronavirus echo many of the overreaching policies of the post-9/11 era.

But policy responses are not foreordained. A global war on terrorism wasn’t an inevitable consequence of the 9/11 attacks, and the coronavirus response has just begun. If this is truly to become the closing salvo to the post-9/11 era, and the start of a new security paradigm, policymakers must remember the lessons of the chapter they wish to close so they do not repeat them.

Americans are acutely aware of the post-9/11 abuses committed in the name of keeping them safe. Public weariness with U.S. foreign policy’s indefinite pursuit of indeterminate goals crosses party lines and spans generational divides. The veterans who experienced the consequences of adventurism firsthand are turning against it too; a majority now wish the United States were less engaged in military conflicts overseas

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Many in the foreignpolicy community have also called for a reckoning. The massive post-9/11 security apparatus failed to protect the public from the coronavirus outbreak, and tragic images of bodies packed in freezer trucks and buried in mass graves in New York make stark the inadequacy of Washington’s shortsighted policy choices.

Given this growing determination to right the wrongs of the previous two decades, it is disquieting to watch policymakers advocate for all-too-familiar solutions to deal with the current pandemic. Despite the clear need for a new approach, the search for safety from the coronavirus has once again led policymakers to call on the four-headed monster of militarism, xenophobia, surveillance, and anti-democratic opacity.

To be sure, there are no perfect parallels, and any attempt at historical analogizing can conceal while it reveals. The national security community is in a different place than it was in 2001, even if many of its key players remain the same. But the troubling similarities between the decisions made then and now should make clear the need for rethinking the threats America faces and the ways policymakers choose to meet them.

The first areas of disturbing commonality are in the overriding militarism and xenophobia of the responses. The militarism of the reaction to the 9/11 attacks began with rhetoric and found its ultimate policy expression in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, political leaders again deploy war rhetoric to describe the threat and similarly risk a cascade of aggressive policy responses that would do more to create than respond to a wartime environment.

In 2001 and today, declaring war has proved politically expedient, as, amid a climate of fear, war rallies the public and diverts frustration from domestic failures toward an external enemy. The war on terrorism framing shrunk the space for domestic dissent and committed U.S. service members to fighting an open-ended war against an amorphous foe. President Donald Trump’s self-declared war on the coronavirus similarly attempts to deflect responsibility (though less successfully than in 2001) and—if medical professionals are correct that the virus is unlikely to be eradicated soon—may also be committing the United States to another unwinnable conflict and another period where rolling back securitized measures remains difficult.

When it comes to the use of the military in these wars, fortunately the responses to terrorism and coronavirus look quite different. Instead of invading countries, U.S. armed forces are supplying manpower and hospital ships (even if the much-heralded USNS Comfort has treated fewer than 200 patients in virus-ravaged New York City). But one of the key lessons of the 9/11 period is the ease of viewing the military as the tool of first resort, despite its powerlessness in solving political or humanitarian problems. In addressing the coronavirus, policymakers should continue to use the military’s capacity in service of public health, but they should also recognize that neither the pandemic nor its geopolitical symptoms can be cured militarily. Increasing the remit of the military could lead to hawkish requitals—which, in turn, could give rise to further security threats.

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In declaring their wars, the policymakers of 2001 and 2020 designated an enemy. And while both terrorism and the coronavirus are themselves nonhuman entities, their invocation as foes has fueled dangerous xenophobia with very human consequences.

Former President George W. Bush explicitly stated that the United States was not at war with Islam, but nativist voices embraced the clash of civilizations narrative, and the ensuing war on “Islamic terrorism” enabled and perpetuated Islamophobia at home and abroad. Internationally, the United States alienated governments and ordinary people alike. Domestically, hate crimes against Muslims jumped massively from 2000 to 2001, and they have still not returned to pre-2001 levels.

Where Bush publicly repudiated racism, the Trump administration blows harder into the dog whistles of racial rhetoric, with similar impacts. Internationally, the approach has brought U.S.-China relations, at both official and public levels, to a new low (from an already low point) right at the moment when China has the medical manufacturing capacity the United States depends on. It has also weakened America’s ability to cooperate on pandemic responses with even its closest allies. At home, discrimination against Asian Americans has spiked, with one center fielding reports of over 1,100 incidents in two weeks. Of course, neither the coronavirus response nor the war on terrorism created xenophobia; rather, they exacerbated existing prejudices and inequities. As the coronavirus response develops, policymakers must work to ameliorate these ills, not worsen them.

As militarism and xenophobia so often go hand in hand, so do another pair of post-9/11 measures that are once again on the table: an increase in what the government knows about the public and a decrease in what the public knows about the government.

In the weeks after 9/11, a panicked Congress passed legislation to ensure there would never be such an intelligence lapse again. The Patriot Act did patch some critical holes in the government’s ability to track terrorists, but its sprawling scope also led to major surveillance abuses. In the coronavirus era, other governments are replicating this approach, as China doubles down on facial recognition and Israel greenlights a program usually used for counterterrorism to track citizens’ phones.

U.S. policymakers have not implemented such intrusive measures, but the pandemic has ignited calls for steps that deeply concern privacy advocates. Data-mining firms like Palantir already have contracts in place with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Some U.S. analysts argue that the coronavirus vindicates the highly surveilled Chinese internet. Others have urged the adoption of tracking methods similar to those used by the government of Singapore, pointing out that U.S. governors can use post-9/11 legislation to force citizens to comply.

These debates are difficult, as containing this disease will require robust tracking and tracing. However, the 9/11 era showed that government surveillance—especially when implemented hastily—has the tendency to expand inertially. The Patriot Act’s scope grew in the years after its adoption, resulting in the mass collection of millions of Americans’ metadata (which a government oversight board later deemed not only illegal but also of minimal effectiveness in fighting terrorism). That law has also been applied well beyond its initial counterterrorism intent, including in cases of mortgage and food-stamp fraud.

The United States needs to collect more data to contain the coronavirus, but it needs to do so while taking seriously the potential for expansion and abuse—as well as understanding that while technology can be part of the solution, it won’t be a silver-bullet fix. Addressing COVID-19 requires rapidly expanding contact tracing while instituting clear privacy and data protection regulations; it does not require—and should not permit—covertly scraping data (or allowing private companies to do so) without the knowledge or consent of the American people.

Taking on the coronavirus also requires the public to trust the accountability of the government. And when it comes to issues of transparency, the parallels between 9/11 and now move from the speculative to the immediate. The post-9/11 era was rife with anti-democratic secrecy, and today, the executive branch is again claiming emergency powers to evade accountability. Trump used the coronavirus as a pretext for suspending immigration—not for health reasons but, he claimed, to prevent competition from immigrant labor. He also decapitated the watchdog panel tasked with overseeing $2.2 trillion in economic relief and named a partisan ally to fill a critical inspector general role. In a haunting echo of the post-9/11 era’s habeas corpus debates, last month the Justice Department requested authorization from Congress to be able to detain Americans indefinitely during a state of emergency such as a pandemic.

Just as “terrorism wins” when it prompts Americans to abandon rights and liberties, so too does the tragedy of the coronavirus compound when leaders respond to it by squelching precisely the democratic values that should make the United States more effective than authoritarian states in responding to the virus. Free flows of news and information create political pressure to make smart and life-saving decisions. Policymakers avoid corruption if they know their constituents are watching. By clamping down on hallmarks of democratic accountability, post-9/11 policies curtailed valuable liberties while making the United States less safe. Future decisions to combat the coronavirus must avoid reviving similar actions.

The coronavirus demands real foreign-policy innovation, not a slide back into the familiar and flawed. It demands an honest appraisal of the self-defeating consequences of militarism, xenophobia, surveillance, and secrecy. Without this reevaluation, the United States will march forward into a new moment weighted down by old and deficient tools.

America’s foreign-policy makers face an opportunity to reject the destruction of the post-9/11 paradigm. They should seize it.

  • After the Coronavirus, Don’t Repeat 9/11’s Mistakes photo

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