NEWPORT, R.I. — Friedrich Nietzsche once said: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." That may seem a stretch, as we nervously wait to see if further attacks and economic bad news will follow. We feel tension between our commitment to democratic values and our need for greater security. The revelation of terrorist networks operating on US soil tears at our unity. Still, there are reasons to believe Nietzsche today.
The immediate response to the disaster itself gives reason for confidence. Relief operations have proceeded with heroic efficiency. The effect on our communications and information infrastructures, long considered vulnerable to physical or cyberattack, proved more manageable than many expected. The reopening of the New York Stock Exchange within four business days was only the most visible sign that our financial infrastructure is resilient.
But what of the future? We have learned much that will reduce our vulnerability. We will improve our ability to collect and analyze intelligence on potential threats, to ferret out enemies before they strike, and to deny them access to our most sensitive targets. The public and elected officials appear to recognize that any measures undertaken, particularly in the legal realm, must tread the fine line between security and preserving our core values.
Perhaps most significant is the mindset of our citizens. Increased individual awareness of our vulnerabilities and of the need for vigilance may well prove the strongest defense.
The attack has strengthened our ties to the rest of the world. The global outpouring of sympathy and support for America reflects the fact that many who envied and resented us two weeks ago have now shared a traumatic experience that touches all. Further, Americans now realize how much our security is intertwined with the rest of the world. For the Bush administration, this epiphany comes in acknowledging that we alone cannot bring those responsible for the attacks to justice and prevent a repetition. Recognition also seems to be dawning that our long-term security requires cooperation not only in military action, but in efforts to correct social and economic conditions that spawn terrorists.
Finally, Americans are more united today than at any time since Desert Storm and perhaps since Vietnam.
Can this unity last? I think so, because it rests on several pillars. Our sense of loss will endure, as will our desire for justice and security. For now, the latter is focused on the call to arms. This will be a unifying force in the near term, but the war against terrorism will be a long-term effort that could become divisive.
Victories are likely to be incremental, punctuated by setbacks. Our leaders will face a severe test as they strive to hold public support, while avoiding planting seeds for future problems. A successful struggle must combine elements of the cold war, with its emphasis on global containment punctuated by selective action, and the Marshall Plan, which used massive investment abroad to remove seedbeds of hostility. The war on terrorism requires the same type of leadership.
The most lasting pillar of unity will be the process of rebuilding. Most symbolic will be what rises on the site of the World Trade Center, but much more is involved. Recovery from the attacks is linked to the recovery of an already floundering economy. One ground for hope is the apparent sea change in attitudes toward spending. Congress doubled the president's request for $20 billion for reconstruction, acted quickly to aid the airlines, and is now moving to provide relief for the insurance industry.
Increased spending on defense and security is a certainty, and corporations are decentralizing operations, a trend likely to spur investment in real estate and construction. As consumer spending moves toward normal patterns, and interest rate cuts take effect, we may hope for a quickening economy and new growth. Sept. 11 was the end of the world as we knew it. But the world taking shape can be more secure, united, and capable of providing a better life for all.
Lawrence Modisett is chairman of the Decision Strategies Department of the Naval War College. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the US government.