From China to disinformation, our fear of fear itself is tearing us apart and making us less safe.
Nineteen years after 9/11, we’ve come a long way in shoring up our nation’s physical infrastructure, but we’ve got a long way still to go in strengthening our nation’s cognitive infrastructure. American politicians like President Donald Trump need to stop deliberately overhyping threats, and the American public needs better mental resilience. Our fear of fear itself is tearing us apart and making us less safe.
In 2001, al-Qaeda targeted our airports, planes, skyscrapers, and government headquarters, but they struck far more lasting fear into our hearts. Terrorism is ultimately a strategy of provocation. It depends on spreading terror outsized to the actual threat posed so that the target government, often urged on by its panicked citizenry, reacts in counterproductive ways. And for all of the reasonable and necessary steps America took after 9/11 to protect itself from the actual terrorist threat revealed on that day, in other ways the United States also succumbed to its fear. Employing torture, curtailing civil liberties, invading Iraq — these were the types of missteps terrorists hope for and rely on to transform limited attacks into outsized consequences.
These errors of our own making reflected the potency of al-Qaeda’s assault on America’s cognitive infrastructure. Americans were relatively unaccustomed to terrorism. We lacked, for example, the comparative stoicism that the English had developed in the face of years of terrorist attacks. And while President George W. Bush urged Americans to go about daily life, he also embraced extreme and ultimately counterproductive reactions like the Iraq invasion.
President Barack Obama, by the time of his final 9/11 anniversary in office, had made it a deliberate component of U.S. counterterrorism strategy to cultivate resilience in the face of terrorism. It was an effort to begin addressing the nation’s cognitive infrastructure that, in a sense, was al-Qaeda’s real target all along. Even as he did so, the mental challenge posed by terrorism persisted. America’s withdrawal from Iraq contributed to a looming security vacuum into which ISIS stepped, using the Middle East as a base for plotting and inciting terrorist attacks worldwide, and using digital media to reignite many Americans’ fears of terrorism.
Then came President Donald Trump.
Trump’s ascension to the presidency revealed, again, just how much of a national security vulnerability America’s cognitive infrastructure could be if left unhardened. Russia deployed disinformation to aid Trump’s electoral victory, disseminated it on social media, and exposed the susceptibility of too many Americans to distortions and outright lies. Millions of us liked, shared, retweeted, and reposted falsities that Russia concocted, knowing that many Americans so badly wanted to believe them that they would.
Like 9/11, Russia’s 2016 attack on our election system was an attack by a hostile foreign actor ultimately targeting America’s cognitive infrastructure, and finding devastating vulnerabilities.
For any normal president, the success of Moscow’s information operations would’ve been a wake-up call to harden America’s newly revealed weaknesses. But not to Trump. Trump found America’s open wound, and he stuck his finger in it. He echoed Russian disinformation and pumped out his own. He attacked institutions like the intelligence community, law enforcement, media, and even basic science, ones that could have fought Americans’ embrace of lies and restored a sense of shared facts and objective truth. And he gave adversaries a green light to keep targeting America’s national consciousness with lies about anything Trump disliked and sought to denigrate, from Joe Biden to COVID-19. When it comes to terrorism, Trump deliberately has stoked our fears rather than our resilience, thus promoting a goal of terrorists themselves.
COVID-19 has put on even starker display the national security dangers of a Trump-infected cognitive infrastructure. Too many Americans are unwilling to believe in science, facts, and journalism, but are eager to embrace conspiracy theories, junk science, and political leaders — a combination that has proven, quite literally, deadly in the face of the pandemic. On Wednesday, we learned that Trump made American gullibility his strategy for surviving (politically) the pandemic, as he admitted in March to downplaying its seriousness to the public.
There is a better way. The 19 years since 9/11 have taught us that sustainable American national security depends on securing not just our physical, and now digital, infrastructure but also our mental resilience. Strengthening our cognitive infrastructure doesn’t mean getting Americans to agree on everything, consume the same news sources, or think of their American identity uniformly. We’re happily too diverse for that. But it does mean ensuring that America’s collective consciousness isn’t so susceptible to manipulation by hostile actors that we tear ourselves apart, embrace fiction over fact, and do to each other what our adversaries are unable to do to us themselves.
When it comes to terrorism, America’s leaders must reject the Trumpian instinct to hype the threat and scapegoat vulnerable communities. Instead, they must augment unfinished efforts to instill resilience in the American people by explaining the actual threat posed by terrorism and the importance of not overreacting to it.
When it comes to disinformation, America has much to learn from other countries, like Estonia, which has made Internet literacy an emerging national identity; like France, which now teaches digital health to the country’s youth in school (as some American schools are beginning to do); and like Japan, which has developed an Internet Literacy Indicator System to ensure that the country is making quantifiable progress in cultivating cyber-resilience.
It’s not just about the Internet, though: rebuilding trust in American institutions like the intelligence community, law enforcement, the courts, and the free press should be a national security priority and requires government officials to make a stark break from Trumpian denigration of those institutions, rejecting his rhetoric and educating Americans on just how essential those institutions are.
It’s not just about terrorism anymore, either. Consider China. There are serious issues American politicians should discuss and debate regarding what China’s rise means for national security, including Beijing’s increasingly aggressive claims in the South China Sea, economic espionage against American companies, and brutal repression of the Uighurs. But China is also a key U.S. trading partner and, even more simply, a country of over a billion human beings. Talking about security challenges is our responsibility; but oversimplifying or overstating those challenges to scare Americans about China falls right into the fear trap.
Nineteen years after 9/11, we should demand our leaders recognize the full vulnerabilities exposed by al-Qaeda’s deadly attacks. We’ve hardened cockpits and emergency exits. We still need to harden Americans’ minds. Shoring up America’s cognitive infrastructure against enemies both foreign and domestic must become a national security priority.