Center for Strategic Communication

Photo: Flickr/Michael R. Perry

Once again, it’s September 11. Once again, the nation pauses — however momentarily — to reflect on the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and the country they continue to reshape 11 years later.

Only this September 11 feels different. It’s been over a year since the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden, and followed up with additional strikes on al-Qaida that got Obama administration officials envisioning the end of a terrorist movement that vexed the U.S. for 11 years. And yet the giant wartime apparatus the government built to confront the emergency of al-Qaida remains firmly in place.

In a rational world, as the emergency receded, so too would the institutional mechanisms of response. In the world we actually live in, the war on terrorism is more like a zombie, lurching forward thoughtlessly on instinct and stimulus-response.

How undead is it? There’s no pure metric for zombiness, of course. But by taking samples of the human and financial toll the war continues to take, it’s possible to get a good indicator. It is admittedly incomplete: Some of the statistics we wanted to cite were either unavailable to the public or we learned from the agencies in question that measurements we figured existed actually don’t.

While some of the data represent outliers or counterexamples, the overall picture is of a post-9/11 government apparatus that’s actually somewhat diminished from last year, when we editorialized for an end to the era of counterterrorism. And that’s significantly down from its high-water marks early in the aughts. But make no mistake: The 9/11 security state is very much alive. Or, if you prefer, undead.