Fighting Terrorists Not the Same as Fighting Terror

I have a new piece up this morning at CNN’s Global Public Square, co-authored with Mieke Eoyang of Third Way, making the case against an expanded Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Rather than thinking of new powers to hand over to the president, Congress should revisit the original rationale for the AUMF, and realize that, with the end of combat operations in Afghanistan by late 2014, such authorities are no longer required. In the future, should additional threats emerge that the president is unable to address without taking the country to war, then Congress can and should declare war, on an enemy, and with a clear end-goal in mind.

As it currently stands, the AUMF has become a catch-all for any U.S. government activities that can be cast as counterterrorism. It has allowed what should have been a small and achievable mission–killing or capturing those who planned the 9/11 attacks, and those who helped them, and degrading al Qaeda’s ability to carry out future such operations–to become a quixotic and unbounded global crusade, the longest war in the nation’s history, with no end in sight. One proposed revision would only compound this problem, making it easier for the president, this one or his successors, to expand the list of targets, and this war, at his or her discretion. So long as the nation remains on a war-footing, the government will always find new wars to fight. 

The GPS piece was written before the revelations of U.S. government surveillance of U.S. citizens’ phone records, and, perhaps, Internet usage. But the themes are connected: how does the U.S. government strike a balance between protecting the rights and liberties of American citizens, and securing those same citizens from physical harm, especially from individuals (i.e. terrorists) who use violence or the threat of violence against innocent people for political purposes? The American people, usually jealous of government intrusions in their private lives, have been far more tolerant of such intrusions over the past 12 years for a simple reason: they are scared. Indeed, they are terrified. Counterterrorism should address that psychological condition as much as it does the people that cause it. And we don’t need an expanded AUMF to do that.

The government has done an able job of rounding up terrorists and their accomplices; core al Qaeda has been practically eliminated, and its would-be successors are notably unsophisticated. The AUMF had little to do with that, with the important exception of those initial operations conducted in and around Afghanistan. The government has also collected, chiefly through traditional law-enforcement methods, an additional cohort of idiots, nitwits, and utter incompetents, many of whom were unlikely to harm even themselves, let alone innocent bystanders. The small likelihood that they might succeed has justified further extraordinary efforts, about which we now know a bit more. Again, such capabilities do not hinge on an AUMF.

By contrast, the government has done a terrible job of reducing people’s fears, and the context of the AUMF–reminding the public that we are at war–probably makes the problem worse. By and large, despite a few hopeful signs, we are still terrorizing ourselvesThis was the overarching theme in a collection of essays that I edited with Jim Harper and Ben Friedman. The book was published nearly three years ago. Its message, unfortunately, still remains relevant today.