The Decade of Terror That Wasn’t

In early 2005, Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism chief, imagined himself in 2011, looking back on the decade that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. What he saw was horrifying.

The slide into catastrophe started in 2005 with a wave of suicide bombings in Las Vegas casinos.

“The woman never hesitated. She walked to the roulette table, fifty feet from the front door, and pushed a detonator, blowing herself up. The explosion instantly killed 38 people who were standing and sitting at nearby tables.

The nails and ball bearings that flew out of the woman’s vest and belt wounded more than a hundred others, even though slot machines absorbed many of the miniature missiles. Eighteen of the hundreds of elderly gamblers in the casino suffered heart attacks that proved fatal when they could not be treated fast enough amid the rubble.”

At the same time, terrorists attacked amusement parks across the country. “Two women strolling separately through Mouseworld’s Showcase of the Future detonated their exploding belts in the vicinity of tour groups in the ‘Mexican Holiday’ and ‘Austrian Biergarten’ exhibits. Similar attacks took place at WaterWorld, in California; Seven Pennants, near Dallas; and the Rosebud Casino, in Atlantic City. By the end of the day 1,032 people were dead and more than 4,000 wounded. The victims included many children and elderly citizens. Among the dead were only eight terrorists, two each from Iraq, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Philippines.”

The backlash was immediate. “In Detroit, northern New Jersey, northern Virginia, and southern California armed gangs of local youths attacked mosques and Islamic centers. At the request of local clerics, the governor of Michigan ordered National Guard units into the city of Dearborn and parts of Detroit to stop the vigilante violence against Islamic residents.”

Using new emergency powers, federal agents made mass arrests of Muslims, sending detainees to remote internment camps the size of small cities. “Roundups based on ethnicity succeeded only in enraging local ethnic communities.

This made it more difficult for the authorities to enlist co-operation in either investigating hate crimes or preventing future attacks from within these communities.”

The repression didn’t stop the violence. Simultaneous gun attacks on five major shopping malls across the United States killed over 1,000 people. Americans fled shopping malls, casinos and amusement parks closed, airlines and the hospitality industry foundered. The economy fell into recession and unemployment soared.

On and on it goes. Clarke piles up the horrors, and the horrifying responses, until, by 2011, America is a dystopian wasteland of walls and barbed wire. Globalization, prosperity, liberty, multiculturalism: all are a distant memory.

The point in recalling Clarke’s essay is not to poke fun at the man. Or at least, it’s not only that. Aside from the breathless prose – Clarke is also a part-time writer of Tom Clancy-esque thrillers – there’s not much that’s unusual about this vivid exercise in terrorist futurology.

In the months and years after 9/11, countless security experts sketched vivid images of escalating disasters. Canadian historian Jack Granatstein even foresaw it happening in Canada. In every case, the authors imagined a large and growing toll inflicted by domestic Muslim terrorists, a popular backlash against Muslims, and the end of free, pluralistic, globalized societies.

Which wasn’t unreasonable. Lots of us feared some or all of this would happen.

Why wouldn’t it? People may be open-hearted in good times but danger promotes tribalism. And tribal responses. History is rife with them. In 1890, the murder of the police chief of New Orleans prompted the mass lynching of 11 Italian immigrants simply because the pistol used to murder the chief was Italianmade. That’s typical of our species, unfortunately. Something like the response to the attack on Pearl Harbor – when Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans were rounded up and imprisoned for no reason other than their ancestry – could very well have followed 9/11.

But it didn’t. Instead, the Bush administration made a determined effort to reach out to Muslims, while urging Americans to distinguish between the terrorists and the overwhelming majority of Muslims who shared nothing with the terrorists but a faith. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta – the son of Japanese-American internees – even forbade airlines from profiling Muslims in security screening, and brought several actions against offenders.

There simply was no backlash worthy of the name. No vigilante mobs roaming the streets.

No soldiers with bayonets fixed. No camps. Alarmists like Richard Clarke kept insisting that the next attack would finally tip the population into madness but it never happened. Not after the bombing in Bali. Not after Madrid. Not after London. The governments and people of western nations restrained primal passions and remained true to their civic principles.

There has been discrimination, of course. There still is. Pew surveys in 2007 and 2011 found that about half of Muslim-Americans felt it is “more difficult” to be a Muslim in the United States since 9/11. One-quarter reported that people had treated them with suspicion. One in five said they had been called names. About five per cent – a number so low it may not be reliable – reported having been threatened or attacked.

This is all unfortunate but it is, to be blunt, modest relative to what was feared and what was inflicted on unpopular minorities in the past. It’s also quite telling that half of Muslim-Americans believe the public is generally friendly toward Muslims, while another 32 per cent feel the public is neutral – and only 16 per cent felt the public is unfriendly. Pew even found that Muslim-Americans are far more likely – 56 per cent to 23 per cent – to be satisfied with the way things are generally going in the United States. There is “no indication of increased alienation or anger among Muslim-Americans,” the study concludes.

The story is much the same with the expected rise of the domestic terrorist threat, which is real enough but not even a shadow of what so many feared. “Out of the more than 150,000 murders in the United States since 9/11,” noted sociologist Charles Kurzman in Foreign Policy, “Islamist terrorists accounted for fewer than three dozen deaths by the end of 2010. Part of the credit for this is surely due to law-enforcement officers and community members who have worked to uncover plots before they could be carried out. But fewer than 200 Muslim Americans have been involved in violent plots since 9/11, most of them overseas, so credit for the low level of violence must be due primarily to the millions of Muslims who have refrained from answering the call to terrorism.”

Similarly, 9/11 didn’t mark the beginning of the end of civil liberties, however one may feel about the Patriot Act and other government responses. The United States, Canada, Britain, and other Western democracies continue to be the freest societies in history.

Nor did globalization take a serious hit that awful day in September. Over the last decade, global trade grew rapidly – until the 2008 catastrophe that had nothing to do with terrorists – and the biggest economic story was the rise of China, Brazil, India, and other developing nations. Travel did not end. Tourism did not vanish. And historically unprecedented levels of migration continued: Not only did the United States not close its borders after 9/11, the steadily increasing rate at which it admitted new legal residents actually rose slightly. The simple truth is that 10 years after 9/11, every nation in the Western world is more culturally diverse and pluralistic than ever.

Looking back on the decade from the moment Richard Clarke imagined, the most remarkable feature is how little changed. Terrorists must be disappointed, and imaginative experts surprised.

But for the rest of us, it’s cause for relief and satisfaction.