'The Biggest Danger Is Overreacting'


Sept. 9, 2011

Joe Nye teaches courses on international politics and American foreign policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. On Sept. 11, he was the dean of the Kennedy School. As part of our weeklong series, Sept. 11: A Day Of Reflection, A Decade Of Stories, Nye reflects on how he led his students that day — and the implications of the attack for the country.

Professor Joe Nye is seen in his office at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. On Sept. 11, he was the dean of the school, and had to figure out how to lead his students through the day. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

I remember the sense of shock and worry and concern among our students after the second tower was hit, and it was clear it wasn’t an accident. And there were some people who said, “Oh well, we should send the students home.” And I thought to myself, “No, that's the worst possible answer! To have everybody sitting alone in an apartment in Somerville, or wherever, trying to cope with this, watching television.”

I said, “Why don’t we do what we do best at the Kennedy School, hold a community forum?” So we basically pulled together a few faculty members who knew something about the field, though obviously nobody knew about what was really happening. And we held a public forum, which was jammed; members of the audience asking questions and participating. And I think that had something of a therapeutic effect. It allowed the community to pull together and to try to make collective sense of something which otherwise was horrific and senseless.

One of the key questions was what's the retaliation, what's right and wrong in retaliation; what do you do, how do you know who did it, who do you attack. And there were some who said, “Well, we don't know enough, we can't retaliate; it wouldn’t be moral,” others who said “We must retaliate.”

There were a variety of arguments between students, among students themselves about how do we know enough, and when do we retaliate. I don’t know that we got a single answer, but I think the general feeling is that retaliation was both necessary and just.

I'd also spent some time as head of the National Intelligence Council, which does intelligence estimates for the president in the early 90s in the Clinton administration. And one of the studies that I did for President Clinton was the increased prospect of terrorist attacks. I didn't have the foresight to say using airplanes as cruise missiles, but we did warn that there was likely to be what we called in the report “an equivalent to a Pearl Harbor.” And alas, that turned out to be true.

Terrorism, unfortunately takes a generation or so to burn out, as we’ve seen in earlier terrorist episodes at the turn of the last century. So I’m afraid we’re not out of the woods. But the biggest danger is the danger we could do to ourselves by overreacting.

Terrorism is little bit like a big game of jujitsu in which the weaker opponent tries to beat the large opponent by leveraging the large opponent’s strength against himself, and so the extent to which we overreact, we accomplish their goals.

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