Remote learning: The final lessons

(Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

It’s been five weeks since this impromptu exercise in online teaching about terrorism began, and now we’ve come to the end. So what I’ve asked my students to think about for this final week of class are two simple questions:

  • Why hasn’t there been another 9/11-scale terrorist attack in the United States in the nearly 20 years since?
  • What are the real risks that terrorism poses to the United States, and how should we address them?

One of the ways I get at that first question is by having my students read a piece by journalist Timothy Noah, published back in 2009, in which he lays out a series of possible explanations for why another 9/11 had not yet occurred. Despite being a decade old now, many of the theories he lays out have held up well, others not so much.

As I discuss in this first video below, Noah’s explanations range from the comforting to the decidedly worrisome. On the comforting side, Noah essentially argues that 9/11 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. Rather than succeeding out of strategic brilliance and flawless tactical execution, the 9/11 attacks worked because of dumb luck. At every one of the many points where the plot could have been discovered or something could have gone wrong, the breaks went in favor of the terrorists. The likelihood of that happening again, he argues, is pretty darn low. On the worrisome side of the equation is the simple argument that another large-scale attack is ultimately inevitable, and it is simply of matter of time until it happens.

Should another large-scale terrorist attack happen in the US, many analysts believe that it will likely involve the use of weapons of mass destruction, or CBRN (chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear) terrorism. Journalist Steven Brill makes this point in assessing US terrorism security policy post-9/11. In the video below I summarize the case made by leading terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman on CBRN. He touches on three main points: Why we haven’t seen CBRN terrorism yet; why it might now be plausible; and why we shouldn’t dismiss the threat.

In the final video, I introduce a contrarian argument, courtesy of Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, who argues that the risks of terrorism for the United States have been wildly overblown (see a short review of his book by that name here), that our overreaction to the risks is more damaging and dangerous than the threat of terrorism itself, and that rational policy making must be based on a clear-eyed assessment of what terrorists actually can do rather than our “worst case fantasies” about what they might want to do.

For Jeb, W’s legacy is no liability


Last month, just after the second Republican presidential debate, I wrote about Jeb Bush’s curious (to me) doubling down on his claim that his brother, President George W. Bush, had “kept us safe” from terrorism during his presidency.This was in response to goading from Donald Trump, who had the nerve in the debate to remind the viewers that it was Bush who was in the White House on 9/11.

Trump has been using this inconvenient fact to bludgeon Jeb ever since, forcing Bush to hold the line with the tenacity of a terrier. But it’s more than that now. As Peter Beinart writes at The Atlantic this morning, “It’s now clear: Jeb Bush wants to speak about his brother’s record on 9/11 as much as possible.”

And so Jeb continues to defend his brother:

In the latest episode of the reality show that is Donald Trump’s campaign, he has blamed my brother for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on our nation. That Trump echoes the attacks of Michael Moore and the fringe Left against my brother is yet another example of his dangerous views on national-security issues. … Let’s be clear: Donald Trump simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
The historical record begs to differ. Bob Woodward, stenographer to official Washington, writes in Plan of Attack, the first volume in his Bush at War trilogy:

It was not an exaggeration when Bush dictated to his daily diary that night that, “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” In some respects the attacks were more devastating. Instead of 1941 Hawaii, which was not then a state, the targets were the power centers of the homeland. Instead of Japan, the attacks were conduced by a shadowy enemy that had no country or visible army. Worse for Bush, CIA Director Tenet had explicitly warned him about the immediacy and seriousness of the bin Laden threat. Focusing on domestic issues and a giant tax cut, Bush had largely ignored the terrorism problem. “I didn’t feel that sense of urgency,” the president acknowledged later in an interview. “My blood was not nearly as boiling.”

But for Jeb, the real responsibility for 9/11 lies elsewhere, with Bill Clinton, W’s predecessor in the White House. In an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Monday, Jeb said:

I think there’s two ways to look at Islamic terrorism. One is a threat that has to be taken out as it relates to, you know, creating a strategy that calls it a war, or we view it as a law enforcement operation where people have rights. I think the Clinton administration made a mistake of thinking bin Laden had to be viewed from a law enforcement perspective.

Back to the historical record.

Richard Clarke was appointed by Bill Clinton as the first National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism, and he continued to serve in that position under George W. Bush until he resigned in March 2003. The country’s top counterterrorism official, Clarke ran the Situation Room on 9/11. In his book, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, Clarke writes:

Clinton left office with bin Laden alive, but having authorized actions to eliminate him and to step up the attacks on al Qaeda. … He had seen earlier than anyone that terrorism would be the major new threat facing America, and therefore had greatly increased funding for counterterrorism and initiated homeland protection programs.

When Clinton left office many people, including the incoming Bush administration leadership, thought that he and his administration were overly obsessed with al Qaeda. After all, al Qaeda had killed only a few Americans, nothing like the hundreds of Marines who died at the hands of Beirut terrorists during the Reagan administration or the hundreds of Americans who were killed by Libya on Pan Am 103 during the first Bush’s administration. Those two acts had not provoked U.S. military retaliation. Why was Clinton so worked up about al Qaeda and why did he talk to President-elect Bush about it and have Sandy Berger raise it with his successor as National Security Advisor, Condi Rice? In January 2001, the new administration really thought Clinton’s recommendation that eliminating al Qaeda be one of their highest priorities, well, rather odd, like so many of the Clinton Administration’s actions, from their perspective.

So why does Jeb continue to toe the line? Well, it’s simple. The Bush name, and W’s legacy, isn’t the liability you’d think it is. Especially for Republican voters. A YouGov survey taken in September tells the tale.

In that poll, George W. Bush enjoys a 79% job approval rating among Republicans. When asked how good a job W did in “keeping the U.S. safe while president,” a whopping 81% of Republicans said his performance was good or excellent. Let that sink in for a minute.

Finally, when asked, “If Jeb Bush were elected president, do you think he would do a better or a worse job than George W. Bush?” 43% of Republicans said they thought Jeb would do just as well or better.

That’s the bottom line. Jeb has realized that his brother’s legacy is no liability, at least the voters who will decide the GOP’s nominating contest.

Jeb doubles down

bush 9-11
George W. Bush, keeping America safe.


It was one of those moments during last night’s GOP debate when I had to stop and ask: Did he really say that? OK, fine, there were a lot of those kinds of moments, but this one was … special.

In response to Donald Trump’s goading criticism of his brother’s administration, Jeb Bush responded with this:

You know what? As it relates to my brother, there is one thing I know for sure, he kept us safe. I don’t know if you remember, Donald. You remember the rubble? You remember the firefighter with his arms around him?

Yeah, I remember. That would be the rubble of the World Trade Centers.  That would be the rubble of the World Trade Centers that were destroyed by terrorists in hijacked airliners on 9/11. That would be Sept. 11, 2001. When George W. Bush was president.

screen_shot_20150917_at_2.39.53_pm.png.CROP.original-original.39.53_pmSo, according to Jeb, George kept us safe from terrorism by presiding over the country on the day it suffered the single worst terrorist attack in its history.

Now we have to acknowledge that Jeb was going off-script in this moment of the debate, and while he’s had some nine months now to prepare any number of effective responses to criticisms of his brother’s (or his dad’s) presidencies, every time he gets one of these he stumbles and fumbles his way into some awkward statement or other.

You’d think that in the clear light of the next day, Jeb would find a way to walk that bit of gross misstatement of the historical record back. Maybe emphasize that W kept us safe after 9/11, or something. But nope. Today he doubled down, sending out the tweet above.

Maybe there’s some signal of steely resolve that Jeb is trying to send here, I don’t know.

What I do know is that the families of some 3,000 Americans who lost their lives that day, and the families and friends of the thousands more service men and women who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Bush years that followed, might beg to differ.