The Price of Lost Chances
A survey by The New York Times puts a stark price tag on the cost of reacting — and overreacting — to the Sept. 11 attacks. An even more difficult question is how much Americans paid in “opportunity costs.”
By DAVID E. SANGER Published: September 8, 2011
"In 2004, when he was arguably still capable of initiating another devastating attack on the United States, Osama bin Laden released a video gloating about his plan of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”
As usual, Bin Laden’s vow was overblown — but, as it turned out, not entirely crazed. A survey by The New York Times, detailed in the accompanying chart, puts a stark price tag on the cost of reacting — and overreacting — to the defining event of the past decade. America’s bill for fighting a 21st-century “asymmetric war” comes to at least $3.3 trillion. Put another way, for every dollar Al Qaeda spent to pull off the Sept. 11 attacks, the cost to the United States was an astonishing $6.6 million.
Today, Al Qaeda in Pakistan is crippled and Bin Laden is dead. But the $3.3 trillion figure suggests that the unanticipated costs of how we managed a grim decade — money already spent or committed in the future — amount to a little more than one-fifth of America’s current national debt.
Some of those were unavoidable, direct costs of responding to the attack. Some, like the Iraq war, were expenditures of choice. But there is also the more difficult, less quantifiable question of what we paid in “opportunity costs.”
Less than a trillion dollars of the $3.3 trillion was for direct responses — including toppling the Taliban. But what if at least some of the remaining $2 trillion plus had been spent on other, longer-range threats to American national security? Rebuilding a broken education system? Finding more imaginative ways to compete with China? Reducing the national debt? Or delivering on promises, by President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton alike, for “Marshall plans” to rebuild societies at risk of letting the next Al Qaeda flourish?"