Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Total, Mind-blowing Disaster

A total, mind-blowing disaster is a beautiful thing.

By mind-blowing, I guess I mean either an unusually large event, like an earthquake that kills 100,000 people, or something that is unique because it doesn't happen very often, like flying some airplanes into a couple iconic skyscrapers in New York City.

But what's beautiful isn't the event itself. What's beautiful is the few moments after the initial shock wears off.

In those moments, there is total freedom. Minds have been blown, and the rules have been broken so badly they are basically suspended. Any chains that previously constrained you are broken, and if you are bold and brazen enough a leader, people will let you go just about anywhere you want.

It's a zero-gravity moment, a moment when everyone is holding their breath and waiting to see what comes next.

That moment lasts only a few hours, maybe a half a day if you're lucky. Once that window starts to close, the restraints start closing around your limbs again, and if you haven't already taken off in a bold, brazen, and unexpected direction, you probably won't be able to. Your zero-gravity moment is over.

For Americans, September 11 was a day like this. The planes hit the buildings in the morning, and then that was followed by a few hours of stunned shock and awe.

Then, in mid-afternoon and early evening, the zero-gravity moment came.

It was a time for us to throw open the doors. It was a time for us to say, "We are open for business, and we invite every single person who ever wanted to come check out the US. For the next couple weeks hotels in the major cities will be free, and if you need a car, just let us know, we'll get you one and we'll pick up the tab. No visas are necessary, just show up at the door with your passport (so we at least know your name and that you're here), and we'll be happy to see you.

"If you are an American and your mind has just been blown and you are wondering what to do, just turn around and go back to work. Yes, a couple very famous buildings have been demolished and people have been killed, families destroyed. But no worries, we'll take care of it, we'll all get through it, but what we need you to do right now is to go back to work. We need you to continue with whatever you were doing before this happened.

"For the rest of you, remember that we have just flung the doors wide open. This is a pretty cool place, at least we think so, and we think that if you saw it for yourself, you'd think it was a pretty cool place, too. There are some people out there who really don't like us, in a big way. So sure, hear what they have to say, but then come here and see it for yourself. The doors are open and we'll pick up the tab."

By nightfall the mind-blown, zero-gravity moment that would have allowed such an unconventional response was gone, and the course for the future was set. We fell back onto the old knee-jerk standbys: When you are wronged, seek revenge. When you are attacked, cover yourself with armor and then lash out.

But there were a few hours where we could have gone the other way. Imagine how stunned the whole world would have been to see such a creative, bold, and counter-intuitive response. The shock of airplanes flying into the World Trade Center would pale in comparison. The voice of Osama bin Laden would have been lost to the wind, a tree that fell in the forest with no one to hear it.

And America would have shown itself to be mind-blowingly confident, bold, creative, and above all, OPEN and HUMAN.

Instead, we are, even now, four years later, scared, paranoid, angry, vengeful, violent, and above all, SMALL.

The security risks of throwing open the doors like that would have been small (and as we saw very clearly on TV that day, they weren't that effective anyway). And whatever short-term downside it might have created, we would have easily overcome it with the upside of such an approach. It would have been short-term cost, long-term benefit. Instead, we saddled ourselves with a very high long-term cost.

The awful thing about Sept 11 wasn't the airplanes flying into the buildings. The awful thing about Sept 11 was how we responded, and we will be paying for it for a long time.