Aspen Ideas Fest: America still learning, 10 years after 9/11
June 29, 2011
ASPEN – America’s national security and intelligence gathering have made vast strides since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, but whether the country has grown safer is up for debate.
With an estimated 1 million listeners tuning in via NPR, and hundreds gathered at the ballroom at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome ballroom on Tuesday, four renowned pundits on terrorism, the Middle East and national security assembled to discuss what they believe the U.S. has learned since those game-changing attacks, which turn 10 years old this September.
“Should we be as afraid as we were on Sept. 12?” asked Neal Conan, host of NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” which was broadcast live from the Main Street hotel.
“I think not,” replied John Negroponte, the first director of national intelligence, who served on President George W. Bush’s cabinet. “I don’t doubt that they will try to strike back. … Somewhere, I think, more likely will be in some part of the world outside of the United States, perhaps against some of the United States’ interests in the Middle East or Europe or Asia or elsewhere. But I don’t think we need to be more concerned or as concerned as we were on Sept. 12.”
Former nine-term California U.S. representative Jane Harman offered a dimmer view. She noted that al-Qaida is no longer the top-to-bottom organization U.S. intelligence officials once considered it to be. Instead, “it’s turned into a loose affiliation of groups, not all of them called al-Qaida, around the world.”
The political strife in such troubled counties such as Yemen, Harman noted, “directly influences home-grown radicals in the United States, and I do not fear a massive 9/11-style attack but a series of conventional attacks which we can’t protect 100 percent against. … It’s false security to tell people to go back to their jobs. What’s important it to tell people what to look for and what to do.”
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It’s not just Americans who cope with the threat of terrorism. Audience member Dalia Mogahed, a senior analyst and executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, disputed the assertion from panelist Tom Friedman, an author and columnist for The New York Times, that “until and unless the Arab-Muslim community fundamentally delegitimizes these type of attacks, they’re not going to go away.”
Muslims have actually foiled more terrorist acts than any other group, Mogahed said.
“What I’ve learned since 9/11 is the primary victims [of Muslim extremism] are actually Muslims,” she said.
Friedman noted that America’s very own version of deep-rooted dissent came in the form of the Civil War “because people really believed really bad things. They believed you could discriminate against someone because of the color of their skin and we defeated them. We had a civil war over that. … We defeated them so bad that five generations later their ascendants still put Confederate Flag decals on their pick-up trucks and the only way this ends is in a struggle within Islam … when Muslims take on Muslims over these ideas.”
The fourth panelist, Michael Chertoff, who served as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security from 2005-09, said that U.S. intelligence officials still struggle with determining “what makes people become suicide bombers.” The once prevailing belief was that the would-be terrorists became brainwashed, over an extended period of time, into becoming “fervent fanatics.” That theory turned out not to be true, he said, and “we don’t understand the mechanism of that.”
Whatever the case, America has to stop referring to its mission as the “war on terror,” which Harman called a “misnomer.”
“Terror is a tactic, not an enemy,” she said. “And playing Whack-A-Mole just to take out people is not a narrative that will ever win the arguments with folks who could become suicide bombers.”
Catch the conversation again. We were blogging live at NPR’s Talk of the Nation broadcast discussing 9/11: Ten Years Later and Speaking Across Differences. You can replay our live coverage online at aspentimes.com/ideasfest.