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What do we know today about the psychology of 9/11 that we did not know immediately after the attacks?

We knew immediately that the reaction to 9/11 was likely to be out of proportion to the human and material cost of the attacks we suffered. In a column in The Daily Pennsylvanian published on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, Penn psychology professor Paul Rozin and I expected this overreaction on the basis of psychological research showing overestimation of threats that are catastrophic in impact, uncontrollable, unpredictable and produced by human as opposed to natural forces.

But we did not know how far this reaction would go. We did not predict wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; a war on terrorism that made common cause with authoritarian governments around the world; an extended security apparatus in the United States with new limitations of freedom and privacy; or learned arguments about when cold, heat and near-drowning qualify as “torture.” In failing to imagine how far the U.S. reaction to 9/11 could go, we showed ourselves inferior to the leaders of al Qaeda, who counted on this exact overreaction.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s second in command, gave the al Qaeda prediction in his book, Knights under the Prophet’s Banner, published in Arabic in London in December 2001. Zawahiri opined that if the shrapnel of war were to strike Americans at home, they would have to choose between giving up trying to control Muslim countries or coming out from behind their Muslim stooges to retaliate directly. In the second case, he explained, we would have jihad. By which he meant that Muslims around the world would fight American troops in Muslim lands, just as they had fought Russians in Afghanistan.

In the event, the United States routed the Taliban in Afghanistan with relatively little collateral damage and al Qaeda was not given a jihad to lead. But the U.S. entry into Iraq gave Zawahiri what he wanted, and the more recent U.S. surge in Afghanistan gave him new hope there as well. As the U.S. economy suffers today, the value of trillions of dollars of investment in Iraq and Afghanistan remains uncertain.

There is another way in which Rozin and I underestimated the reaction to 9/11. We did not see the importance of the humiliation Americans suffered. To understand this reaction, it is necessary to go back to the state of the world in September 2001. The Soviet Union had disintegrated, the United States was the world’s only superpower. Decades of anxieties about the Cold War and its nuclear threats had been relieved. The world was an American oyster.

And then 19 men from a group that never numbered more than a few thousand accomplished the horrific damage of 9/11. Americans were humiliated. Humiliation is a corrosive combination of two emotions, anger and shame. Anger is the response to perceived insult and injury. Shame is the response to perceived failure to live up to our own values. After 9/11, Americans were angry at those who attacked us, and we were ashamed that we could not regain our honor by obliterating al Qaeda.

Americans didn’t talk about humiliation after 9/11. It was too painful. We talked about justice against terrorists and war on terrorism. But the humiliation was evident in its relief, in the joy that greeted the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden. We killed bin Laden and now maybe we can get past humiliation to think clearly again about the threat of terrorism and the threat of overreacting to terrorism. Al Qaeda used our own strength against us — jujitsu politics — and we will soon have new opportunities to fall victim to this, the terrorists’ strongest weapon.

Clark McCauley is the Rachel C. Hale Professor of Sciences and Mathematics and Co-Director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College. He is the Founding Editor of Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict and co-author of Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. His email address is

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