Putting an End to “The War on Terror”

Our responses to the threat of terrorism are all too often described as “the war against terrorism.”  But this makes no linguistic sense; terrorism is one of many dangerous phenomena, not an enemy.  We do not describe our responses to the threat of hurricanes, for example, as a war against hurricanes.  More important, the war metaphor has severely biased both the nature and extent of our responses to the threat of terrorism.

First, the war metaphor implies that the primary response to the threat of terrorism should be a military response.  Terrorism, however, is the tactic of those who are motivated to seek political change by violence but are militarily weak.  The most important and too often neglected first question to address is whether some change in policy – such as the foreign basing of U.S. military forces – would reduce the motive for a terrorist threat against Americans at a lower cost than any other potential response.  Maybe not.  In that case, the most effective responses to the residual threat of terrorism are improvements in intelligence, intelligence sharing, and the capability of local police forces – with several special operations forces the only important military response.  The very expensive new weapons systems in the U.S. defense budget, in contrast, contribute nothing to increasing our security against the threat of terrorism.

Second, the war metaphor leads to an overreaction to the the threat of terrorism by inviting misleading comparisons of current conditions with those during prior conditions properly described as wars.  Those who defend an aggressive response to the threat of terrorism are quick to point out that the current losses of liberty and property to counter this threat have been small relative to those during wars.  But the threat of terrorism is very different than the threats during a war in three dimensions: Terrorism presents the small probability of a small loss (unless terrorists acquire a nuclear weapon) but one that may be extended indefinitely.  A war presents a larger probability of a large loss but one that is likely to be limited to a few years.  Most of us are prepared to sacrifice some liberty and property when there is an increased threat to our lives, but the difference in conditions presented by the threat of terrorism and wars strongly affects how much that we are prepared to sacrifice.  In general, people should be expected to be willing to pay a lower current price for security when the expected loss is lower and the period of potential loss is longer; for both of these reasons, how much liberty and property we should be expected to sacrifice in response to the threat of terrorism is far less than during a war.

This perspective leads me to conclude that the U.S. Government should substantially reduce the several dimensions of the current cost of responding to the threat of terrorism to a level sufficient to support only the most effective of these responses for a duration that may be indefinitely long.  Americans may have a lot to learn by a better understanding how Britain, Spain, and some other countries have responded to a threat of terrorism for decades with little sacrifice of liberty or property.

We may still need to replace the war metaphor with some metaphor that better reflects an effective, sustainable response to the threat of terrorism, but I will leave that to someone who is a better wordsmith.