Commentary

Fighting Terror Five Years Later

This article appeared on Foxnews.com, September 4, 2006.

The fatal flaw in the “war on terror” has always been its open-endedness. The president of the United States is never going to sit down on a battleship to sign a peace treaty with terrorism. So when we give the government special, allegedly temporary powers to fight terrorism, we’re essentially handing over that power permanently.

And of course, it’s likely that even if we were to defeat Al Qaeda for good, there will be more terrorists attacks, be it from other Islamic fundamentalist groups or from homegrown terrorists like Timothy McVeigh.

But as we approach the five-year anniversary of Sept. 11, it’s worth noting that we haven’t see another attack of anywhere near he same scope and magnitude of that awful day. Even the bombings in London, Madrid, and Bali, while certainly horrifying and tragic, caused nowhere near the panic, devastation, and sense of doom that gripped the world five years ago.

An emerging group of thinkers, scholars, and security experts have begun to take the provocative position that it’s time for America to declare victory over terrorism. I think they make a convincing case.

James Fallows begins in the cover story of this month’s Atlantic Monthly, with what I think is the single most important article written since Sept. 11. Fallows spoke with 60 experts in foreign policy, security, national defense, and terrorism, from all political ideologies.

We should take heart in what he found: Al Qaeda is a shadow of what it once was. The group’s central organization has been dismantled. Its main sources of funding have been castrated. Its leaders are on the run, and their ability to organize and communicate severely disrupted. Yes, the loose-knit groups of cells that remain can still pull off attacks, and can still kill significant numbers of people. But so can just about any nut in America with a cause and some determination.

The only real threat Al Qaeda still poses, Fallows concludes, is how it can provoke us. “[Al Qaeda’s] hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing,” Fallows writes. “Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.”

This is the one thing — the most important thing — our elected leaders and public officials need to learn. Because it’s the only cache the terrorists still have. Americans need to realize that we, Americans, determine the success of failure of future terrorists attacks and attempted attacks. If the goal of terrorists, by definition, is to induce panic, fear, and to disrupt our way of life, the best way to defuse them is to refuse to panic, to resist irrational fears, and to retain the open society and civil liberties that make us who we are.

Unfortunately, we aren’t doing that. Take airport security. The security experts Fallows spoke with agree that the rigmarole we go through at the airport before boarding a flight is mostly theater. It does little to actually make us safer. It only makes some of us feel safer. Though I’m not even sure it does that. After all, we’re reminded of the possibility of terrorism each time we’re asked to take off our shoes in a security line.

When a sociopath with Islamic fundamentalist sympathies recently opened fire at a Jewish center in Seattle, the first reaction among many opinion leaders was to maximize fear and paranoia by attempting to tie the gunman to global jihad. A more appropriate response would have been to give due deference and reverence to the loss of life and the horror of the incident, but to pay no more attention to the gunman’s schizophrenic philosophy than we might have if he’d been a white supremacist or environmentalist militant. His motivation only matters when we make it matter.

We saw the same thing with the recently foiled plot to blow up planes bound to the U.S. from Britain. One Scotland Yard official panicked, “We cannot stress too highly the severity that this plot represented. Put simply, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”

Britain responded by banning carry-on bags. America banned bottled water and hairspray. Since then, diverted flights and security incidents on airlines has become a daily occurrence. Never mind that the accused terrorists had yet to buy plane tickets, that many had yet to get passports, and that chemists say it would be extremely difficult to bring down a plane with liquid explosives, as the plotters imagined.

Writing for Wired magazine, security expert Bruce Schneier cautions, “Regardless of the threat, from the would-be bombers’ perspective, the explosives and planes were merely tactics. Their goal was to cause terror, and in that they’ve succeeded.”

He continues, “Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we’re terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists’ actions, and increase the effects of their terror.”

It’s likely that we’ll respond to future plots the same way. It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine Homeland Security officials responding to a foiled plot using explosives implanted in electronic devices, for example, by then banning cell phones and iPods on planes. It’s a reaction that effectively allows the terrorists to dictate our security policy.

Ohio State University’s John Mueller has been arguing for some time that the terrorist threat is wildly exaggerated. Sept. 11 was a horrible anomaly, he argues, but the government perpetuates the damage done that day by constructing phantom demons for the public to fear.

In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Mueller writes, “Although it remains heretical to say so, the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist … may have been overblown, the threat presented within the United States by Al Qaeda greatly exaggerated. The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.”

Mueller goes farther than I would, but his point general point makes sense. Certainly, our government should continue to seek out and thwart those who would do us harm. But short of a stray nuclear weapon — a real but unlikely threat, and a threat the objectionable parts of the government’s war on terror do nothing to diminish — there’s little Al Qaeda or other Islamic fundamentalist groups can do to us that any other individual or group with violent ambitions could. Making them anything larger than that is exactly what they want.

As the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, Schneier offers sound advice as to where we should go from here. He writes, “It’s time we calm down and fight terror with antiterror … The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that.”

Radley Balko is a policy analyst specializing in civil liberties issues and is the author of the Cato study, “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America.”