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Macro Level ADD: The Shrinking Attention Span of the American Public Lesson #7 (of 7) from the Aftermath of 9/11

Immediately following the attacks on 9/11/2001, America enjoyed a level of international support that has not been experienced since World War II. I recall driving through Canada months afterward and passing huge billboards displaying the American flag, and the simple phrase: “United We Stand.” Everyone who did not stand fully behind America – whatever our response was going to be – at least would not stand against us. We had a unique opportunity to respond to terrorism and those who sponsored it with almost complete impunity throughout the world. I remember saying to my family members at the time the Afghanistan invasion was announced: “The United States had better go in there while we have the world’s support and clean out the entire snake’s nest – Syria, Iraq, Iran, the whole bunch of them. Just focusing on one of those terrorist sponsoring countries will be like playing whack-a-mole if we don’t – they will just keep coming back.” Looking back on it almost a decade later, I couldn’t have been more accurate. Now we no longer have the strong support of most other nations as we prosecute the war on terror, we have lost the support of many Americans. In fact, we have in many cases lost their attention.

Immediately following the tragic shootings in Arizona that claimed the lives of several innocent people and left Congresswoman Gifford was severely injured, the outrage was wall-to-wall on every media outlet, and even in the social media venues. In my blog posting entitled “A Contrarian View of the Arizona Shootings” from January 2011, I said: “So in light of the terrible tragedy that is the Arizona shootings, here is another avenue of thought related to the context of this event: How many Americans have been lost to murderous insurgents in Iraq since the beginning of the conflict there? Without googling it, can you estimate that number within – say – 1,000? Any idea how many civilians have been killed? Again, you don’t have to be exact here; can you estimate within 1,000 people? According to a front-page story in USA Today January 12, 2011, “Insurgents in Iraq killed more than 21,000 civilians and wounded another 68,000 people with homemade bombs over the past five years, according to newly released data from the Pentagon. The highest number of casualties came in 2007, coinciding with the worst sectarian violence and the surge in U.S. Military forces to quell it. In that year, 7,295 people died – nearly 20 a day – from improvised explosive devices, says the Pentagon. Another 21,970 Iraqis were wounded.” Later in the article, a U.S. Official is quoted when he said: “The enemy put civilians purposely at great risk by its tactics and actions. Because we don’t know them, and we don’t have their faces and their personal stories broadcast into our homes all day and all night for days afterward, and because they are usually not respected court judges, congressional representatives, or beautiful little girls, somehow we don’t feel those losses so deeply. We aren’t moved by them to set our flags at half mast or hold an official moment of silence at the White House, or even mention many of their names on a national news broadcast. And while the men and women whose lives are sacrificed in the line of duty – whether that duty is on the battlefield in Afghanistan or on a police patrol in some major U.S. city – are people you don’t know through a media blitz, they are every bit as important. Every bit as deserving of our pity, our grief, and our prayers.”

The fact is that America’s attention span has been diminishing for decades. The last two decades have been incredible in this respect. The 1996 disaster aboard a TWA Boeing 747 was rapidly replaced by a news story abut unrest in Burundi (I’m still not sure where Burundi is), which was almost immediately supplanted by the bombing at the Olympics in Atlanta. And so it goes. Earthquakes, tsunamis, invasions, and disasters that wreak havoc on entire nations fail to hold the attention of our citizenry longer that the next “big thing” on the news in 9 out of ten cases.

One of the phrases popularized by Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (now Mayor of Chicago) while he was working in the White House was “never let a good disaster go to waste.” This mercenary political method exploits any unique opportunities to push the least popular parts of a political agenda past a distracted electorate. The looming disaster of a financial crisis enabled the Obama Administration to pass a $787 billion stimulus bill. Front Page Magazine reported that: “Beneath the public radar and buried within the bill’s 1,073 pages, the “stimulus” allocated inter alia $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts, nearly half a billion dollars for people interested in researching “global warming,” even at least $18 million for the website that reports how the “stimulus” funds are allocated. Overturning a prime achievement of the Clinton Administration, the “stimulus” restored key elements of the welfare practices that America had abandoned. Over time, the “stimulus” has trickled down to fund $233,825 for explaining voting patterns in Africa and $363,760 for two jobs “develop[ing] ‘real life’ stories that underscore job and infrastructure related to the Stimulus Bill research findings.” (

While this practice is despicable, it is certainly easy to see how it came about. America’s attention span, driven at least in part by the 24 hour news cycle and the sea of information washing over us through the internet, wi-fi, the “mainstream” media and cable channels, demands constant stimulation. We are unable (or perhaps unwilling) to focus on any problem – regardless of its magnitude – for very long. An extremely poignant description of this problem as it applies to 9/11 was recorded by Chip Bok at the Akron Beacon Journal and picked up by BBC (at “The world didn’t change on September 11, 2001. Things had already changed. The World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 by Islamic fanatics. Six people died and more than 1,000 were injured. A US military barracks in Saudi Arabia was bombed in 1996, killing 19 US troops. Al Quaeda killed 257 when it blew up the US embassies n Tanzania and Kenya in 1998. And 17 soldiers died when the USS Cole was hit by al-Qaeda suicide bombers in Yemen in 2000. But because Americans have short attention spans, we were surprised that crazy people wanted to kill us on 9/11/2001.”

So what lesson should we learn from all these things about the nature and efficacy of America’s actions looking back across the post-9/11 decade?

First of all, America did not fully exploit the incredibly rare – perhaps even unique – opportunity to make a broad sweep of those nations that are known sponsors of terrorism. We had the chance to pursue terrorists and terrorist training camps and close down Madrassas where known indoctrination of terrorists was occurring and continues to occur, spewing fresh terrorists every day. We did not, and the result is that the terrorists have simply relocated in many cases from the theaters of focused kinetic activity, and new terrorists join their ranks continuously.

Secondly, America did not fully consider and account for the diminishing internal support associated with the incredible shrinking attention span of our citizens in its courses of action. President Bush’s statements about being a patient man when asked about America’s inability to bring Osama bin Laden to justice sent the wrong message to the American people. It seems to me that the subconscious response of Americans may have been “Well if the President doesn’t feel it’s important, I guess I shouldn’t either.” Big mistake all around.

The upshot is that in these situations America’s actions must be stronger, fully inclusive of enemy forces regardless of their location, and swift (both in initiation and in completion) in order to be effective. They must also be kept front-and-center in the news cycle for as long as they are ongoing. Allowing our armed forces to be in harm’s way without deeming it important enough to keep in the main stream of media coverage – whether the American people are weary of it or not – is unacceptable. Shorten the conflict or keep it front and center; but one way or another, America has to be “all-in” when we go to war. When the average American citizen on the street can’t say within a thousand how many American lives have been lost in an ongoing conflict, we have lost our way as a nation.

What do you think?

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