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9/11: Imagine a World Without Suicide Vests

Posted on by Laurie Garrett

Today is, of course, the 11th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

On this occasion my book, I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM: How Americans Responded to the 9/11 and Anthrax Attacks, is released in paperback. It came out last year as an e-book, published by Kindle, and garnered two eLIT Awards (Gold Medal for Science Books and Silver Medal for Current Affairs). 

Today the paperback addition can be found here . In two weeks it will also be available, like any book, through Amazon, and copies can be ordered now by interested book stores.

The e-book version remains on Amazon now, formatted for Kindle, iPADs, and all major readers except the Nook.

I was deeply honored by the review of I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM that appears in this week's issue ofHealth Affairsby Drs. Julio Frenk (Dean, Harvard School of Public Health) and Octavio Gomez-Dantes (National Institute of Public Health, Cuernavaca, Mexico). Frenk and Gomez-Dantes write: "Few people in the world could have provided a more accurate chronicle and analysis of those events than Laurie Garrett. Garrett's book is not only a superb chronicle of past events it is also an illuminating guide to use in dealing with threats that are still current."

Last week I was honored to return to the Harvard School of Public Health, where as a Fellow I hammered out the first draft of THE COMING PLAGUE back in 1992-3. There, I spoke about key themes in I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM and their resonance through a host of epidemics and crises over the last eleven years.

The journey of publication has been a many-years-long and arduous effort, and I am deeply indebted to colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations and a long list of Research Associates that toiled at my side, particularly Scott Rosenstein (now at Eurasia Group), Kammerle Schneider (now at PATH), El'Haum Alavian (now in South Carolina) and current CFR RAs Kathryn Salucka and Zoe Liberman.

On an uncharacteristically personal note I'd like to express a few thoughts on this sober anniversary. As readers of I HEARD THE SIRENS SCREAM know, I was in the middle of the events of 9/11, and of the anthrax mailings that followed. These are not remote or historic moments for me, but rather emotional and immediate. For years I have struggled to separate the anger and sorrow the events of 2001 spawned in my heart and soul from my objective analytical efforts. Nevertheless, I cannot look at the still-unfinished Ground Zero reconstruction and my neighborhood fire station (which lost a third of its firefighters that day) on this anniversary without getting choked up. What we in New York City went through, and my family and friends in Washington experienced, will stay with us for the rest of our lives. 

We no longer have Osama bin Laden haunting us, and al-Qaeda is today a shadow of its former self. But over the last 11 years suicide bombings have normalized to such a degree, all over the world, that they no longer shock us. We give almost no thought to the unmanned sci-fi reminiscent drones buzzing over Afghan skies, bombing suspected Taliban sites. The incredible is the new normal. The specter of "asymmetric warfare" that loomed over national security conversations in the 1990s is now a given: America will for decades to come spend far more on her defense and domestic preparedness efforts than her enemies will have to expend to wield terror. I believe that we are still struggling to understand what that means for our military, domestic first responders, global and domestic public health infrastructures and homeland security. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on security and trillions on military operations since 9/11, but the entire effort remains a work-in-progress.

As Americans we face another "new normal": fear. With our amygdalae fired up over and over by 9/11, anthrax letters, and countless foiled and executed attacks since we are personally and collectively more fearful than we were, and less able as a people to separate threats of economic, personal and national security natures. We are not today a careful, thoughtful people. Rather, Americans have become angry, deeply divided, often ideologically-driven, and prone to "them-or-us" perspectives on every conceivable issue, from Wall Street hijinks to housing foreclosures and the national debt. 

In my book I try to trace now only the events that transpired in 2001, but the arc of change in America's view of itself, and of the rest of the world. On this anniversary I pray for more healing in America, less rage, and leaders that are willing to think of the common good more often than of their party's mandates and fundraising. I know -- dream on: But my prayers for America must begin with genuine governance. As I pointed out in The Lancet "governance" or the lack thereof is the bottom-line in this year's elections. The current session of Congress has been the least productive in U.S. history, and each day of legislative insomnia or intransigence weakens our nation's security, exacerbates her angry, divided mood, and slows or stymies our healing. 

On this day, wherever you may be, take a deep breath. Try to push fearfulness aside. And let yourself imagine a world in which strife and inequities may actually be resolved without anybody wearing a suicide vest, sending in the drones, mailing anthrax spores or insisting that all who disbelieve the religious or ideological tenets they uphold are enemies.