Commentary

Considering the Costs and Benefits of Counterterrorism

It is a cliché that military planners are doomed to prepare for the previous war rather than the next one. The same is usually true of government policies implemented after a crisis. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, now is the time to ask whether certain counterterrorism measures should remain in place.

The pattern of government regulations is familiar. After something bad happens, the public clamors for action. Politicians solemnly swear that Bill XYZ will ensure that a similar thing will never happen again. Whether Bill XYZ measurably decreases the likelihood of a repeat of the incident is rarely challenged. Those who do are accused of indifference or complacency.

So far, the policies and procedures implemented after 9/11 appear to conform to this familiar pattern. The net result is a litany of prohibitions, hurdles, and costs with the cumulative effect of inconveniencing (or worse) the innocent, while doing little to deter would-be perpetrators.

Consider the very small role, if any, that government policies played in disrupting the plots, and near misses, in the past decade.

In December 2001, the wannabe-shoe bomber, Richard Reid, was foiled by alert passengers and flight attendants. Reid revealed an apparent vulnerability in passenger screening procedures, and all travelers have since been required to remove their shoes.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka the underwear bomber, failed to bring down a Detroit-bound flight in December 2009. In the end, he managed only to burn himself. And yet, his ability to slip past security in Amsterdam provided an impetus for the widespread deployment of backscatter x-ray and millimeter wave technology. Advocates call it whole body imaging. Critics call it the strip search machine.

In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, attempted to blow up his SUV with a propane tank and fireworks in New York’s Times Square. Two alert street vendors reported the suspicious smoking vehicle to a NYPD patrolman, and the bomb squad disabled the crude device. New York City’s vaunted counterterrorism task force played no role in disrupting the plot.

And we should not forget United Flight 93 on 9/11. The four hijackers’ bid to crash the plane into a Washington, DC landmark was foiled by a handful of heroic passengers who learned of the other attacks not from some elaborate government-run warning system, but from conversations with loved ones on cell phones.

With no disrespect to the brave men and women who stepped in to disrupt each of these attacks — and the heroes on Flight 93 deserve special recognition — many of the other attacks that have been attempted since 9/11 failed due to the sheer incompetence of the perpetrators.

It is generally a bad idea to count on the incompetence of one’s adversaries, however. All other factors being equal, it is better to be proactive. But we must also consider the negative effects of protection measures — not only costs, but inconvenience, enhancement of fear, negative economic effects, and reduction of liberties.

The job is to find the security measures that cost-effectively address genuine threats. That requires dispassionate risk assessment, something that the Department of Homeland Security has generally resisted.

A decade after 9/11, it is time to survey the range of government policies implemented that were all aimed at preventing a repeat of 9/11 — or something worse — and ask, “Did they?”

But an obsessive focus on plots foiled and disasters averted distracts from the big picture.

Although a number of terrorist attacks have occurred around the world since 9/11, very few attacks have even been attempted on American soil, and even fewer have succeeded. According to some estimates, more Americans lost their lives during a single weather pattern — Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irene — than have been killed by terrorists over the past decade.

In the days after 9/11, few would have dared predict such a thing. But while we should be thankful that terrorism has proved less deadly than seemed likely, this simple fact shows that the results that counterterrorism policy should seek still elude us. Americans are neither as secure as they should be, nor do they feel that their lives and liberties are well protected. We remain, to some degree, terrorized. And to the extent that we are, the terrorists are succeeding.

Christopher Preble is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and co-editor, with Jim Harper and Benjamin Friedman of Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It.