Ten years ago today, 2,996 people were murdered, unleashing a pair of destructive, mutually reinforcing trends. To prove their relevance, terrorists keep trying to attack the United States at home. And the media and politicians react to it with hysteria, running in fear of getting blamed for a successful attack and perpetuating the gigantic, expensive, counterproductive National Security State. As awful as the snuffing of so many souls on 9/11 was, the second trend has often proved more dangerous than the first.
In case you haven’t noticed, hysteria is what the terrorists want. In fact, it’s the only win a decapitated, weakened al-Qaida can get these days. The only hope that these eschatological conspiracy theorists possess for success lies in compelling the U.S. to spend its way into oblivion and pursue ill-conceived wars. That’s how Osama bin Laden transforms from a cave-dwelling psycho into a world-historical figure — not because of what he was, but because of how we reacted to him.
We can honor the 9/11 victims without being permanently haunted by them.
And that points to the only way out of a trap that’s lasted a decade. It has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with politics. The U.S. has to embrace the reality that terrorism is not anything remotely like the existential threat we make it out to be. We can honor those 2,996 without being permanently haunted by them.
Consider the contours of this latest “credible but unconfirmed” plot. Reportedly ordered by new al-Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri, three terrorists trained in the Pakistani tribal areas are coming to detonate car bombs around Washington and New York.
Car bombs are maddeningly easy to construct. They are maddeningly difficult to detect and defeat. It’s a certainty one will succeed. Maybe not this time, but at some point.
But here’s the thing. It’s very difficult to kill mass quantities of people with car bombs. So much has to go right: the explosive mixture, finding a target that’s packed with enough people, and avoiding detection and arrest at any stage of the plot. If a terrorist is lucky, he will kill dozens of people. It will be horrible. It will also be orders of magnitude less damaging than what al-Qaida pulled off 10 years ago.
There is only kind of terrorism that actually is a major threat: nuclear terrorism. And there, the U.S. has shamefully underreacted. It’s a travesty that there’s unsecured nuclear material in this day and age, and the Obama administration’s efforts to secure it, however incomplete, deserve credit. But notice that’s a problem about unsecured nuke material, not al-Qaida. Lock up the loose nukes — and yes, that’s difficult — and there’s no nuclear terrorism. What’s more, the difficulty of al-Qaida acquiring that material, even with its ties to the spy service of nuclear Pakistan, is reflected in the fact that al-Qaida’s most ambitious plots now involve … car bombs.
You are vastly more likely to die in a car accident than from a car bomb.
There are any number of ways to crunch the data. But the bottom line is that you are vastly more likely to die in a car accident than from a car bomb.
Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic says that’s a myopic way of viewing things.”Consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution,” Goldberg writes, “and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society.”
But terrorism alone cannot do anything to the Constitution. Only Americans can damage the Constitution. Goldberg is conflating the act and our response to it — a response that is entirely within our power to affect. Indeed, as citizens in a democracy, it’s our responsibility to check the government from its excesses, and to stop adding fuel to the political fire.
Look at the charts that Danger Room’s Lena Groeger compiled. She tallies $6.6 trillion in defense spending after 9/11. There is nothing that al-Qaida could possibly do to justify even a slice of such a monster expenditure. Why did it happen?
Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke has an answer. “There’s going to be a terrorist strike some day,” Clarke told Frontline for its “Top Secret America” documentary this week. “And when there is, if you’ve reduced the terrorism budget, the other party, whoever the other party is at the time, is going to say that you were responsible for the terrorist strike because you cut back the budget. And so it’s a very, very risky thing to do.”
The risk, in other words, is a political risk. The culture of fear: It’s a bipartisan race to the bottom. And it’s why the National Security State constructed by the George W. Bush administration has found a diligent steward in President Obama. Asked recently if the post-9/11 security apparatus might diminish soon now that al-Qaida looks weak, Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, replied, “No.”
All the incentives align for keeping that liberty-crushing Security State in place — even when it looks like they don’t. The government’s two major post-9/11 surveillance laws, the Patriot Act and the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, both contain “sunsets” for the widely expanded authorities they grant the government to spy on U.S. citizens. That is, they expire after four or five years, and require congressional reauthorization to continue.
On the face of it, the sunsets sound like an important civil-liberties protection: After all, the surveillance expansions aren’t permanent.
In practice, though, sunsets create the political incentives for precisely such permanence. Voting in favor of an expansion of the surveillance laws is cost-free for any member of Congress, if she doesn’t have to tell her constituents that she’s allowed the federal government to perpetually access their business records or track their movements through their cellphones.
It’s much harder to be the one to stand up and say the threat of terrorism is too minor for such expanded surveillance, and the government needs to stop. When libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) made precisely that case, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) subjected him to cheap, hypocritical demagoguery.
The only way this changes is if citizens change the political incentives for politicians. Two-bit terrorists will always be around, sadly. But when the Harry Reids get major political blow-back for attacking the Rand Pauls, then — and only then — will the 9/11 Era be truly over.
Obama has accommodated himself to the politics of fear far more than he’s confronted it.
This isn’t a call to stop counterterrorism. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says that al-Qaida is on the verge of strategic collapse. If surveillance, drone strikes and Special Operations Forces can actually end al-Qaida, it would be foolish to let the pressure relent. And to confront a residual threat from car bombs, police will need to be vigilant, and the country will need to retain some smaller, focused intelligence apparatus for early warning.
But all of that is only justifiable if the new U.S. Shadow Wars — undeclared, largely covert wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond — actually end soon. The Bush administration never had an endgame for the war on terrorism, preferring to conceive of a “Long War” that amounted to an epochal, generation-spanning struggle.
The Obama administration emphasizes its slow, slow reduction in conventional forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and gestures at waging the cheaper, lower-profile shadow wars in their place. But it has never explained how those wars end — or even if they ever actually will.
When Barack Obama ran for president, his national security team told me, in an extensive series of interviews, that a major focus of his presidency would be to confront what they called the “politics of fear” — the national-security freakout that led to counterproductive post-9/11 moves like invading Iraq. But since coming to power, Obama has accommodated himself to the politics of fear far more than he’s confronted it.
Obama deserves credit for ordering the raid that killed bin Laden. But presidents don’t ever give up their power without a fight.
Only when citizens make it acceptable for politicians to recognize that the threat of terrorism isn’t so significant can the country finally get what it really needs, 10 years later: closure.
Photo: Flickr/Shiny Things