Certain viruses attack the human body indirectly by provoking a self-destructive overreaction by the body’s immune system. Successful terrorists operate in much the same way. They provoke a counterterrorism response out of all proportion to the original attack, and it is this that inflicts the real damage on the target.
By their very nature, non-state groups using “terrorism” as their prime weapon are small and have limited resources. At the time of 9/11, 20 years ago, al-Qaeda, the most famous terrorist group the world has ever seen, probably had fewer than a thousand activists in Afghanistan and supported a loose network of militants across the rest of the world. The destruction of the Twin Towers gave a tremendous shock to America, but al-Qaeda could never make another attack like it.
Devastating though 9/11 certainly was, its real success was in provoking a counterterrorist campaign that is still ongoing and has done damage to the US at every level. America has been damaged as a superpower because it failed to win wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been diminished as a civilised society because it resorted to rendition, torture and imprisonment without trial, justifying illegal actions by pretending that only by such means could public safety be assured.
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