The lesson of 9/11: Zero is the most dangerous number in government

The common thread between Zero Tolerance, Zero COVID, and the Global War on Terror is a fearful public

On 9/11, we wanted America's attackers punished. Instead, we got a Global War on Terror.

The mastermind of the attack, Osama bin Laden, was killed by U.S. forces a decade later, on a tip — not on one of America's many battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war in Afghanistan would continue for another decade.

Fear is a bad basis for public policy. Fear makes us say yes without reading the fine print. Fear leads us to speak those fateful words: Someone Should Do Something.

Whenever that call goes out, “Do Something,” there is a politician in a flag pin standing ready. Be careful what you ask for. You'll get more of it than you could have ever imagined.

That's how one tragic September day led to 20 years of war. That's how an historic intelligence failure led to an ever-larger surveillance state, rather than an upbraiding of it. That’s how so-called temporary security measures led to permanent security theater at the airport.

All of it operates on a false premise: The more power the state has, the safer the people will be.

It’s ridiculous, years later, when you say it out loud: By order of the governor, a global virus was defeated.

Yet to read news coverage in Michigan in 2020, one could have gotten the impression that COVID could be beaten, if only Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pulled the proper levers of government. This thought was something between settled science and conventional wisdom back then.

People accepted lockdowns on this basis. Some people even asked for them. And Whitmer was happy to answer the call.

But why did we, the people, ever believe it possible?

Because we’ve been buying similar claims from the government for a century.

COVID Zero — the idea that a certain set of behaviors could rid us of a respiratory virus — has an older brother in Toward Zero Deaths, in the driving world. Their eldest brothers are twins: Zero Tolerance for school violence, after Columbine, and Terror Zero, after 9/11.

Their grandfather is Alcohol Zero, or Prohibition. Their father is the War on Drugs.

Zero carbon is up next. The Zero Carbon ideal, and not any actual scarcity of energy, is leading to energy crises in California and Europe right now. Green energy is not nearly ready for primetime. True believers push forward anyway, regardless of the consequences.

Zero does not mean zero. Zero only gives the government more power in your life.

Should we install ignition interlock in cars, to prevent drunk driving? Should we ban backpacks at schools, to prevent school shootings? Should we ban people from using their own boats, or buying seed, to prevent the spread of a virus?

These things only make sense if you believe government is capable of the extraordinary. It isn’t. These are just people. They could make your life worse, sure. But when have they ever made them better?

For COVID Zero, we accepted the idea that state government should make lists of essential and non-essential jobs. For the sake of a virus, people’s livelihoods were deemed non-essential.

Zero Tolerance for weapons allowed schools to criminalize and exclude students who had made an honest mistake, rather than educating them. Troubled kids were viewed as a liability to the school system, not the duty of the school system. How many lives were set on a different course, because Zero was the rule?

Prohibition gave money and cachet to the American mobster. The War on Drugs empowered the cartels.

Zero Terror was a costly failure. The second America left, the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, and with a cache of weapons left behind by the U.S. military.

The next time you are afraid, don't just ask what your government will do. Ask how it will know when to stop.

Beware the word zero — it’s the most dangerous number in government.

James David Dickson is managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email him at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.