technofiction ... cyreenik

Post September 11th:
The American Panic of the 2000's

by Roger Bourke White Jr.,
November 2001, updated June 2002, updated November 2003,
copyright November 2003

What should we be doing instead of panicing? (Nov 2003 update)


Let me say it first: We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

It is too early in "the cycle"; I will not be believed when I say that. But I believe it, and I hope the cycle will evolve quickly so that others will believe it, too, and soon: We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

I pray that the American public and leadership will understand this soon and end “The American Panic of ‘01” before it becomes “The Great American Panic” of the 2000's Decade.

Panic: a definition

Panic is a fear springing from deep-seated emotion rather than logic. Because it is not logic-founded, panic thinking is unreasoning, and the actions that are taken up to solve the panic are unreasoned. Because the actions taken in panic are unreasoned, they are always quick, always seem right at the time, and when viewed after the panic ends, are seen as very, very risky, damaging, or expensive.

Watching a Panic Sprout and Grow

As I write this [November 2001], I'm watching America's leadership transform a multi-billion dollar disaster into a multi-trillion dollar disaster. I'm watching America transform a "Mona Lisa of Disasters" -- the September 11th Disaster -- into a reason for quashing even more civil rights, for castrating two valuable and mature industries, the skyscraper industry and the airline industry, and into an excuse for not addressing the serious economic problems of the post-dotcom-bubble American economy.

I'm not happy about what I'm seeing.

Here are some reports from the news that show how this castrating is being done:

These are examples ... just the few that I have found while casually reading newspapers and surfing the Internet.  What does it all add up to?

Remembering Hawley-Smoot

In 1930, America was on the brink of deep economic trouble. A recession had started in 1929, but had been masked most of that year by a booming stock market bubble. After the stock market bubble broke, things looked grim and America was looking for a stimulus package.

Congressman Willis C. Hawley and Senator Reed Smoot introduced a tariff reduction bill to Congress as a stimulating measure. It was a "Mother Theresa Bill" -- something the American public clearly saw as necessary at the time -- so there was no way Congress would vote against it. "But," many Congressmen argued, “times are hard for my constituency, so we need to make one little amendment to help my constituency before I can support this." By the time a hundred-odd little amendments had been made to the bill, what was passed was the most tariff-increasing bill Congress had ever passed!

The governments of the world were not fooled. They knew a heavily protectionist tariff increase when they saw it, and they promptly enacted their own protectionist measures.

The net result: Just as the American economy and world economy needed more trade as a stimulus, trade dried up! And a run-of-the-mill recession was deepened into The Great Depression. The Hawley-Smoot Bill, as enacted, was a product of panic thinking, and it was not the end of panic thinking. Most of the world, through most of the next 50 years, lived in a swirl of panic thinking.

Fast forward to 2001. After a decade of boom -- the longest boom in its history -- the American economy is on the verge of a recession. The tail end of the boom financed a stock market bubble in 2000 that was characterized by the split in stock valuations between New Economy (Dot-com) companies and Old Economy (traditional) companies. If a company was thought of as New Economy, the traditional rules for valuations didn't apply, and the value of the stock went into the stratosphere.

In 2001 things changed. The stock market stopped going up, and the New Economy boom was being re-labeled a bubble. All through the year, the stock market was sinking slowly as all companies were returning to historical ranges of valuations and as earning expectations were being revised downwards. The market was sinking and the economy was sputtering. There was growth in the economy, but the sinking stock market was sucking a lot of liquidity out of the system, and it was clear that some sectors of the economy had been grossly overinvested in, such as the telecom sector. So there was growth in the economy, but the growth was spotty.

The California’s power crisis of that year, with rolling blackouts throughout the state, also showed that there were some "structural bottlenecks" in the economy that would have to be worked out before rapid growth could resume. (This power crisis dwindled after Enron declared bankruptcy, and it was found to be due mostly to market manipulating.)

In other words: It was time for the boom to end.

But how it ended was important and subject to much human control. The landing could be soft or hard. And prior to September 11th, how to land the economy was very much on the minds of American leadership.

Enter September 11th

September 11th did many "first-ever" things:

These are all firsts. It was no first that mid-east terrorists were gunning for US targets.

What did September 11th do?

The biggest thing September 11th did was change the attention of the American leadership. Instead of worrying about day-to-day problems, such as how to land and relaunch a teetering economy, American leadership changed focus immediately to looking for revenge on the perpetrators of September 11th, and to how to protect against other terrorists. We became a nation with "a terrorist behind every bush", and the witch-hunting began with tremendous enthusiasm. Even Greyhound/Continental Bus got on the witch hunting bandwagon. When a disgruntled passenger attacked a driver, Greyhound/Continental suspended bus service across the nation for a week while it reviewed security policies. The attack was not terrorist-related and not that unusual, but the bus company management responded massively. It was almost as if the management was saying, “Hey! American Public! Don't forget about us! We're important enough to be a terrorist target, too!"

This change in attention has not been good for the economy. The distractions aren't good, and all the costs and disruptions associated with anti-terrorist exercises are the equivalent of the disruptions caused by the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act when it dried up world trade. In both cases, it has become much more expensive to do business, just when business needed an expense break.

I predict that the 2002 recession is going to be a severe one. It will be severe because American leadership is going to ignore the economy as it plays The Great Catch Osama Bin Laden Adventure, and the American public will not see the link between anti-terrorism disruptions and the sinking economy.

Here are some examples of what it is already ignoring.

Will I rent space in a skyscraper? Will I fly again?

I like flying. I like it so much that I earned a commercial pilot license with an IFR rating. But do I fly on commercial flights these days? Only if you twist my arm real hard!

Why? Because I'm profoundly insulted by airport security.

Each time I go to fly in a commercial airplane, I'm reminded that:

What kind of marketing is this??? As much as the airlines try to spin this, it's negative marketing of the first order. And I've watched it get progressively worse. I don't remember which incident set off the need for secure corridors, but it was some time in the mid-80's. I do distinctly remember the ratchet up in security after Lockerbie -- with the introduction of the inane questions, "Did you pack your own bag?" and "Has a stranger asked you to carry a package on board?" (Oh, and it's not just passengers -- try walking into an air freight company as a stranger these days.)

September 11th is the start of yet another ratchet up, and with each ratchet, flying is less convenient.

Yes! I'D LOVE TO FLY. But I'm not going to put up with security procedures that inconvenience and insult me. So, for now, I don't fly if there is any other way to get from point A to point B. I'll fly over the Pacific or the Atlantic, but not within the US -- I've felt this way since the Lockerbie ratchet up, and I feel this way even more now.

In the same vein: Would I rent space in the Empire State Building? Well, I love a view. But nowadays, I'm buying a lot more than a view when I pay for space in the Empire State Building; I'm buying security as well. With the extra security I'm buying:

And, as an added bonus:

So, even though I don't fear terrorists, I won't rent in the Empire State Building because I will be inconvenienced by many other people who do fear terrorists. These other people will make my life working in a skyscraper damnably inconvenient! And do so in the name of protecting me!

So because of September 11th, the skyscraper landlords and the airline industry are both being castrated in the name of “We will make people feel it's safe to use your facility by increasing the high-profile security procedures people must endure to use your facility." And in both cases, the results are going to be profoundly self-defeating.

What other American industry has had to go through this kind of self-castration? The nuclear industry comes immediately to mind. It is just one of many.

A Great American Panic

While American leadership and media may talk a good line about "America will not be bowed down by terrorism", the truth is that the leadership and media have already pissed down their legs. They are terrified! Personally, I've never seen such cowardice!

The September 11th attacks struck at America's media and military centers, and both have responded with a "never again" attitude. The problem with that attitude is that it never will happen again ... no matter what the military and media do ... even if they do ... NOTHING!

The September 11th attacks were a "Mona Lisa of Terrorism": They can't be duplicated. So defending against another September 11th is a waste of time, money, and attention.

What is American Leadership Doing?

What is American leadership doing? It is taking us headlong into a major recession. It is amplifying the direct damage of the attacks -- a multi-billion dollar expense -- into a multi-trillion dollar expense by playing security games.

Homeland Defense = Hawley Smoot

The latest unfolding of the panic is the tens of billions to be spent on Homeland Defense. We are in a recession, but rather than spending billions on stimulus and removing structural bottlenecks such as the power problem in California, we are going to waste the money on useless security. The security is useless because the attacks it is designed to stop come in roughly thirty-year intervals. We don't need to be spending to stop another Lockerbie or another September 11th now, we should start spending to defend from the next high-profile attack in, say, 2025. (This sounds a bit facetious, but consider that post-Lockerbie security measures weren't seriously tested for thirty years, and when they were tested, they failed.)

Furthermore, America already has one of the tightest security systems in the world, and it's not financed by the government -- it's financed by commerce seeking anti-fraud and anti-theft measures. Here are some examples that show how tight the web already is:

In both cases, and many others, the tight web of paper that surrounds commerce in America provided all the investigative materials that were needed to take action instantly, and we can't expect more than that.

The Moral: Homeland Defense, whatever it becomes in reality, is going to be an expensive boondoggle that won't add one iota to America's security. It will cost billions and billions of dollars, get in the way of our lifestyle and commerce, and defend against threats that will never come upon us. American commerce, on the other hand, will pay for the meaningful security that America needs.

And, once again, that Homeland Defense money -- and even more important, the attention it represents -- would be much better spent on restructuring the "post-bubble" American economy.

If Bush really wanted to be a hero.... (December 02 update)

If G. W. Bush really wanted to be a hero, he would have boarded a commercial flight by September 15th. As he boarded, he would have had a press conference, and at that conference, he would have said something to the effect of:

"I'm taking this flight to demonstrate my faith in the safety of commercial air travel.

"Yes, we have experienced a terrible tragedy, but that tragedy was caused by a unique combination of events. I have faith that current security measures will protect me and all other air travelers. The FAA and other members of the airline industry will be reviewing those measures and improving them. But this is an on-going process, and the September 11th tragedy is a one-time event.

"I say again: The September 11th tragedy is a one-time event and no reason to lose confidence in air travel. I'm here to demonstrate that today. And to show the world that Americans will not be 'terrified' out of their way of life. AMERICA WILL NOT BOW DOWN TO TERRORISTS."

And he gets on that plane and flies. And he may do so a couple times over the next month. Now that would have been heroic, and it would have muted the hideously expensive panic reactions and the witch-hunting we are going to have to endure for the next decade.

The Curse of the Patronizing Habit

The terrorists who took over the September 11th planes threatened people with box cutters -- which are simply razor blades with sturdy handles. Because they did, the FAA is now trying to eliminate all blades from inside airplanes. But is this the right response? Whoa! let’s think about this...

Is a box cutter a lethal weapon? Well, you can kill someone with it, but only if they "agree" to be killed by it. The person who is going to be killed by a box cutter must hold still while the killer actually cuts at something vital. If a person doesn't hold still, the box cutter cuts and lots of blood is spilled, but the person being cut won't die for a long, long time.

The person agreeing to be killed may be holding still because they are scared or because they are stunned after being beaten into submission, but the box cutter doesn't make them hold still. Some prior action or threat does.

The point of this: It wasn't the box cutters that let the terrorists take over those planes. It was their intimidating manner while they were carrying box cutters -- the tool that took over the planes was, in reality, HARSH LANGUAGE. Take away their box cutters, and the terrorists would still have taken over those airplanes. They would still have been intimidating. They could have had the same effect on passengers with Bruce Lee Kung Fu yells. The box cutters were a bluff. When the passengers moved against the terrorists, as they did in plane number four, they called that bluff.

But the FAA and the public choose to ignore this obvious fact. Instead they are acting as if the box cutters were an essential tool to the hijackers, and if they didn't have them, they would not have been able to take over the plane. The result: More billions of dollars in added cost as officials try to figure out how to stop not just large knives and guns from getting on planes, but small knives and kitchenware as well! Billions of dollars, and it won't make any difference! If the FAA really wants to take away the terrorists' weapons, they need to figure out how to keep harsh language and threatening gestures off airplanes -- those were the terrorists' weapons of intimidation, not box cutters.

Or ... they need to devise a way to nullify the effectiveness of harsh language and threatening gestures.

Could this be done? Easily! Passengers simply need to be trained how to respond to the terrorist threat. If the passengers had moved against the terrorists, there would have been no grand tragedy -- five terrorists could not stand against eighty passengers, even if the terrorists were armed with UZI's. How would this training have been arranged? Easily! Simply add anti-terrorist instructions to the pre-takeoff ritual.

We should be hearing, “In the unlikely event of a terrorist attack on this plane, ... " and then a demonstration of the "official airline way of overwhelming terrorists", whatever that is decided to be. It is so simple and so appropriate. With that kind of message being played on every flight, a terrorist is going to have to bring a lot more intimidation with him or her to be successful.

But instead of "stop the terrorist" training as I've just described, I'm still hearing "In event of terrorist attack, get out of the way" advice. I heard it just last week (Jan 02) on a PSA being aired by the Armed Forces Radio in Korea.

This is “The Curse of Being Patronizing”. The airline infrastructure can't feel easy about delegating this task of dealing with terrorists to the passengers. Instead, it wants it handled by an official airline representative who will "negotiate this delicate situation" with the hijacker. This is the wrong choice, and this wrong choice is costing the American Public billions of dollars. The billions of dollars include:

Whatever happened to the "Sh_t Happens" attitude?

When I was in the Army, in Vietnam for the Vietnam War, sometimes unpleasant things would happen. These things would happen in spite of our best efforts to keep ourselves safe and secure while we did our jobs. When they did, we said, “Sh_t happens," and went on about doing our best to do our jobs and keep safe and secure. In the seventies, this slogan followed us veterans into civilian life for a bit, but I haven't heard it used for a long, long time. (It’s not completely dead, my editor pointed out these days you can get baby bibs with “Spit Happens” on them.)

Fatalism is not a prominent part of the American psyche. But there are times when an extra dose or two would do our culture good! Those times are when Americans demand a fix for a one-in-a-million problem so that it will never happen again.

September 11th is a perfect example. This is a terrorist act that can't be duplicated. It is a one-in-a-million event. But in spite of the fact that it can't be duplicated, America is going to spend billions to make sure it can't be duplicated.

Instead of spending billions, we should applaud the perpetrators for their unique addition to Terrorist Theater -- applaud briefly and with great anger -- and then quickly get back to business as usual. This is a case of Sh_t Happens, a unique event. It is not something we should be centering our cultural attention around and not something we should be spending billions to prevent from happening again.

In the case of September 11th, the billions and the attention are castrating the airline and skyscraper industries. We are, de facto, marginalizing airline and skyscraper technologies needlessly. Airlines and skyscrapers are following the course of the nuclear industry after Three Mile Island. They will exist, but they won't play as important a role in our lives as they could, and our lives will be more expensive and poorer as a result.

Accepting Technology is not inevitable

Some argue that technological progress is inevitable. This is not so. It only seems so based on the European and North American experience of 1700 to 2000. But there are many other times in history where technologies have been marginalized or rejected outright.


Human societies can mishandle technology easily so it is important that we as a society take an active effort to make sure they are handled well.

We do this by educating ourselves to take risks and recognizing that disasters do not always require protection against repetition. Sometimes, Sh_t Happens, and just because it does, it does not mean we should give up the benefits of the technology that allowed the disaster to happen. We should, instead, forge ahead and keep looking for new ways to make our lives better with all the technologies at our disposal.

Man is a tool-using animal. We use tools better than any other animal. It is what makes us unique. When we turn our backs on using a tool, we are turning our backs on our own humanness.

How will the 9/11 Panic End

The 9-11 panic will end the same way previous American panics have ended: It will be displaced by a new panic. The terrorist panic of today has displaced the War on Drugs panic of the late ‘80's and early ‘90's. The War on Drugs panic replaced the oil crisis/dwindling resources/auto safety panic of the 70's. The oil/resources/auto panic replaced the civil rights/Vietnam War panic of the 60's.

Will genetically modified (GM) foods or NAFTA panic replace 9-11? Probably not. 9-11 is still too new and sharp, and 9-11 struck very close to the home of big media in New York, and big government in Washington. 9-11 will survive these other contenders as the defining panic of the decade.

In each case, we have had to endure a panic for about a decade. In each case, there was compelling reason to start the panic, and in each case, the panic produced social policies we still live with today. Some of the policies that came from these panics are good, but there are many that now look silly and very, very expensive.

How we are treating our airline and skyscraper industries today will not be understood by our grandchildren.

What should we be doing instead of panicing?

The Northeast power blackout of August 2003 was not terrorist-related, but it was a threat to our well-being here in the US.

This as a fine example of the misdirection of attention that has occurred in US thinking since 9-11. In retrospect, the state of the US power grid is something that deserves high-level attention, but it has not been given that attention because the leadership of the country (the politicians and the media) has been focused on the image of bomb-toting terrorism as symbolized by "Bad Guys" Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

This is an example of the dark side of panic and focusing. There are a lot of things that need improving in this country, and fixing them will take attention. It will take attention because solving these issues is complex and will involve stepping on the toes of vested interests.

This is where US leadership should be devoting its attention, not to the highly entertaining threats of a handful of twisted people.

In the case of the power gird: Improving the system will be expensive in terms of equipment, environmental issues, and property access -- a truly nasty tangle of issues. Add to that mix the fact that there is no clear beneficiary because the transmission companies are highly regulated, and it's not surprising that there's been stagnation.

US leadership should be investigating the roots of this problem, and the hundreds like it, that are still just potential problems. Leadership should be the catalyst for removing the roadblocks that prevent solving these problems in the course of day-to-day business. In the case of the power blackout, if these problems are not being solved because of a bad interaction between cost, environment, and property rights, then leadership should be promoting a plan what will smooth these interactions so that the problem truly does go away -- so that it does become cost-effective to keep the power grid up-to-date and equipped with plenty of redundancy.

Terrorism is an "easy" issue because there are no toes to be stepped on when "war" is declared. But in truth, it is distracting. It is distracting leadership from paying attention to the thousand-and-one details that come up much more often than a terrorist attack, and thus have a much bigger influence on our day-to-day lives.

This issue of panics and dealing with them is the theme of the two “Siege of Titan” stories in The Honeycomb Comet. It is also the theme of the Cyreenik Says part of my White World web site.

--The End--

technofiction ... cyreenik