Declaring Victory Over Terrorism To Reduce The Threat

While one post today notes the potential dangers resulting from Bush allowing bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora, two recent articles question the degree to which terrorism remains a threat in the United States. James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic, warns that the response to terrorism may be more dangerous than terrorism itself, comparing our situation to Europe prior to World War I:

“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. “Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”

It is harder today for potential terrorists to get into the country, but we are paying a price for this:

“It is harder to get into the country—to a fault,” says Seth Stodder. Much tougher visa rules, especially for foreign students, have probably kept future Mohammed Attas out of flight schools. But they may also be keeping out future Andrew Groves and Sergey Brins. (Grove, born in Hungary, cofounded Intel; Brin, born in Russia, cofounded Google.) “The student-visa crackdown was to deal with Atta,” Stodder says. “It’s affecting the commanding heights of our tech economy.” Richard Clarke says that the domestic change that has had the biggest protective effect is not any governmental measure but an increased public scrutiny of anyone who “looks Muslim.” “It’s a terrible, racist reaction,” Clarke says, “but it has made it harder for them to operate.”

Fallows discusses the difficulties al Qaeda has in operating in the United States and sees declaring victory as preferable to a perpetual state of war:

And while a standing state of war no longer offers any advantages for the United States, it creates several problems. It cheapens the concept of war, making the word a synonym for effort or goal. It predisposes us toward overreactions, of the kind that have already proved so harmful. The detentions at Guantánamo Bay were justified as a wartime emergency. But unlike Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of martial law, they have no natural end point.

A state of war encourages a state of fear. “The War on Terror does not reduce public anxieties by thwarting terrorists poised to strike,” writes Ian Lustick, of the University of Pennsylvania, in his forthcoming book, Trapped in the War on Terror. “Rather, in myriad ways, conducting the antiterror effort as a ‘war’ fuels those anxieties.” John Mueller writes in his book that because “the creation of insecurity, fear, anxiety, hysteria, and overreaction is central for terrorists,” they can be defeated simply by a refusal to overreact. This approach is harder in time of war.

A state of war also predisposes the United States to think about using its assets in a strictly warlike way—and to give short shrift to the vast range of their other possibilities. The U.S. military has been responsible for the most dramatic recent improvement in American standing in the Islamic world. Immediately after the invasion of Iraq, the proportion of Indonesians with a favorable view of the United States had fallen to 15 percent, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey. After American troops brought ships, cargo planes, and helicopters loaded with supplies for tsunami victims, the overall Indonesian attitude toward the United States was still negative, but some 79 percent of Indonesians said that their opinion of America had improved because of the relief effort. There was a similar turnaround in Pakistan after U.S. troops helped feed and rescue villagers affected by a major earthquake. But in most of the Muslim world, the image of American troops is that of soldiers or marines manning counterinsurgency patrols, not delivering food and water. “The diplomatic component of the war on terror has been neglected so long, it’s practically vestigial,” a Marine officer told me. “It needs to be regrown.” But in time of war, the balance is harder to correct.

Perhaps worst of all, an open-ended war is an open-ended invitation to defeat. Sometime there will be more bombings, shootings, poisonings, and other disruptions in the United States. They will happen in the future because they have happened in the past (Oklahoma City; the Unabomber; the Tylenol poisonings; the Washington, D.C.-area snipers; the still-unsolved anthrax mailings; the countless shootings at schools; and so on). These previous episodes were not caused by Islamic extremists; future ones may well be. In all cases they represent a failure of the government to protect its people. But if they occur while the war is still on, they are enemy “victories,” not misfortunes of the sort that great nations suffer. They are also powerful provocations to another round of hasty reactions.

War implies emergency, and the upshot of most of what I heard was that the United States needs to shift its operations to a long-term, nonemergency basis. “De-escalation of the rhetoric is the first step,” John Robb told me. “It is hard for insurgents to handle de-escalation.” War encourages a simple classification of the world into ally or enemy. This polarization gives dispersed terrorist groups a unity they might not have on their own. Last year, in a widely circulated paper for the Journal of Strategic Studies, David Kilcullen argued that Islamic extremists from around the world yearn to constitute themselves as a global jihad. Therefore, he said, Western countries should do everything possible to treat terrorist groups individually, rather than “lumping together all terrorism, all rogue or failed states, and all strategic competitors who might potentially oppose U.S. objectives.” The friend-or-foe categorization of war makes lumping together more likely.

The United States can declare victory by saying that what is controllable has been controlled: Al-Qaeda Central has been broken up. Then the country can move to its real work. It will happen on three levels: domestic protection, worldwide harassment and pursuit of al-Qaeda, and an all-fronts diplomatic campaign.

Foreign Affairs has an article by John Mueller entitled Is There Still a Terrorist Threat? He concludes with:

Although it remains heretical to say so, the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist — reminiscent of those inspired by images of the 20-foot-tall Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the 20-foot-tall Communists at various points in the Cold War (particularly after Sputnik) — 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.

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  1. 1
    The Charters Of Dreams says:

    While I agree that current response to the terrorism threat has been misguided and counter-productive, that response is all the more alarming if you believe that the threat of terrorism is NOT overblown.

    If you think it is, I’d think again, at least if you’re thinking long term: Want to create a pathogen? Just download its gene sequence information from the Internet and place an order with a gene sequencing company. The genes arrive in the mail a couple of days later. Mix it in your basement lab and then release on an unprotected public. Is this threat overblown? Humm . . . let’s see

    1. In 2002 one team constructed the polio virus us­ing only published DNA sequence information and mail-ordered raw materials:

    2. In 2005, another group similarly reconstituted the 1918 pandemic influenza virus that killed tens of millions of people:

    While such resources as DNA sequence information and mail-ordered raw materials can be regulated within the States, these resources are, unfortunately, global, and the bio-labs are more likely to be in far off cave in the wilds of Pakistan than in some smart guy’s basement in California.

    Is the threat of terrorism overblown? Well, only if you don’t use enough imagination — and imagination is something Al-Qaeda and like-minded groups excel in.

    For more information, check out this article in

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    You miss the point. The problem is not that the threat of terrorism is overblown, but that the Republican response to terrorism plays into their hands and increases the risk of terrorism.

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