Despite the attention being paid to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the past may well be beside the point. What is in front of us is much more important than what is behind us.
The Twin-Towers attack, notwithstanding its individual tragedy and economic and political impacts, both domestic and international, distracted us from the future that we wish to create and put us at risk of not being able to create it. "It" is, broadly speaking, a better world than we found when we got here - inside and outside our borders.
Nations, like communities and families, must decide how to allocate resources to sustain the present and build for the future. Getting the enemy to mis-allocate resources to a fatal degree is an old and clever strategy. Many in the military and elsewhere believe we caused the Soviet Communist system to collapse by forcing them to overspend on defense when they could least afford it.
Al Qaeda has effectively done that to the US. Under the Bush-Cheney regime, we overreacted at a time when we could not afford to devote so many resources outside our own domestic challenges. (Defense spending under Bush jumped from 3.6 to 6 percent of GDP). We launched a war into Iraq on a false pretext. Homeland security exploded. And Obama has held to that overall trajectory, upping the ante in Afghanistan against the informed counsel of his own Vice President. (And we continue to fire drone missiles into countries against whom we have not declared war, killing innocents along the way.)
According to the National Priorities Project, the United States has spent more than $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Of that, homeland security spending alone has cost $635.9 billion. Funding for homeland security has risen from $16 billion in FY2001 to $71.6 billion requested for FY2012. Defense spending for 2012, much of it predicated on the terrorist threat, is projected to reach $703 billion, or roughly 5% percent of current projected Gross Domestic Product. That's also a little more than half of the $1.3 trillion deficit.
If even one trillion seems unfathomable, that's because it is. How big is one trillion? Maybe this will help:
If you had started spending a million dollars every single day since Jesus was born, you still wouldn't have spend a trillion dollars (CNN reports). Actually, you would have spent roughly the equivalent amount the US plans to spend on defense this coming year. A mathematician puts it like this: "1 million seconds is about 11.5 days. 1 billion seconds is about 32 years. A trillion seconds is equal to 32,000 years."
So $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security in one decade represents an allocation of capital that is unprecedented in human history (the entire US economy in one year is worth about $12 trillion).
Could the US afford $7.6 trillion on defense and homeland security over the last decade? It would appear not, on the face of it.
It's not that nothing should have been spent, but the focus outward on the terrorist threat that might arrive here has managed to ignore the inward needs of the US, which are beginning to play out now with greater force.
Thomas Friedman recently noted the convergence of four negative conditions in the world today: power arrangements radically changing in the Middle East; Europe struggling to save its financial house; China teetering for reasons of its own; and the US in a political stalemate as its currency weakens, its economy grows less competitive and its fiscal order resembles that of an early developing country.
Presently the President and Congress are fiddling, unable to agree on spending or cuts or taxes - the CBO currently estimates a $1.3 trillion deficit for 2011, the third largest in 65 years - or priorities that should guide our actions for a stronger future.
The US simply has to get its act together if it is to serve as a linchpin of healthy democracy, an engine of growth and a purveyor of freedom in the world. Freedom in this case would mean an environment where individuals are free to pursue and to realize their dreams. And that would mean we are investing wisely and well in our future, not squandering resources out of fear, imprisoned by the force of memories better left behind.