Fear Is the Health of the State

James Fallows has an important–and brave–piece in the new Atlantic Monthly. Important because it reports the underreported good news in the war on terror: we’re winning. Indeed, after interviewing some 60 leading terrorism analysts while researching the article, Fallows has concluded that we’ve won. And the article is brave because one subway bombing while this issue’s on the stands and Fallows’s name might become the punchline to a thousand bitter jokes about pollyannaish predictions.

But if and when another attack happens, it won’t disprove Fallows’s point: we do not now, if we ever did, face an existential threat from the likes of Al Qaeda. As he puts it, “terrorists, through their own efforts, can damage, but not destroy us. Their real destructive power lies in what they can provoke us to do.” If fear, not reason, governs our reaction to terrorism, then Al Qaeda can provoke us into launching unnecessary wars and abandoning the constitutional protections we cherish. If we proclaim this conflict World War III (or IV–the hawks appear divided on this point, if on little else), then certain consequences follow for the American constitutional order. Which is one reason why Fallows urges the abandonment of the war metaphor.

Of course, Al Qaeda is a threat that should be taken very seriously–in some ways, more seriously than the adminstration has in the past. But for nearly five years, too much of the public debate over foreign threats has been dominated by breathless hysteria. The soundbite “the Constitution is not a suicide pact” has become the tell-it-to-the-hand of constitutional debate, as if it is a given that unless we gut the document, we will be committing national suicide. Peace and liberty don’t do well in an atmosphere of panic. Fallows’s calm, sober optimism serves as a useful corrective.