Feature

Terrorism: Too much vigilance?

No one advocates complacency, but many Americans would like to see surveillance and spending against terrorism scaled down to a more reasonable level.

It’s time we ended our “Decade of Fear,” said Andrew Cohen in The Atlantic. After 9/11, a terrified U.S. spent $1.1 trillion waging foreign wars and creating a vast security apparatus that impinges on almost every aspect of daily life. But now that we’ve had time to regain some perspective, it’s obvious that our fear of al Qaida was irrational and disproportionate: Its leaders and soldiers are nothing more than “zealous losers,” not an existential threat to 300 million Americans. Assume for a moment that al Qaida had somehow pulled off every one of the 23 terrorist plots the government says it has foiled since 9/11, said Ronald Bailey in Reason.com. Perhaps another 2,300 Americans might have died. By that reckoning, we spent $400 million per life saved, while turning America into “a national security state,” with wiretapping, surveillance, and intrusive body searches. “Terrorism is a hollow threat to which we should not surrender one iota of our liberties.”

How facile, and how wrong, said Charles Kraut­hammer in The Washington Post. The only reason al Qaida did not get to repeat 9/11, or pull off something even more horrific, is that two presidents aggressively pursued a dogged, worldwide campaign to destroy this network of murdering fanatics, and have done so “with increasing sophistication, efficiency, and lethality.” Our vigilance kept us safe. “That is a historic achievement,” not an overreaction. No level of terrorism deaths is acceptable, said Jeffrey Goldberg in TheAtlantic.com. It’s silly to argue, as some now do, that more people die in bathtub falls than in acts of terrorism. A bathtub fall doesn’t make people afraid to leave their homes or travel, shut down the economy, erode social trust and civil liberties, and destabilize the entire society.

Still, it’s impossible to deny that we went a bit overboard, said Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner. In the hysterical aftermath of 9/11, FBI Director Robert Mueller warned that al Qaida had “a support infrastructure” within the U.S., with as many as 5,000 operatives plotting “to inflict significant casualties.” It wasn’t true: A classified FBI report later admitted, “We have not identified any true ‘sleeper’ agents.’’ As for homegrown jihadists, their “plots” were half-baked affairs cooked up by bumbling misanthropes with no expertise in bomb-making or terrorism. So can we scale down the surveillance, the spending, and the paranoia? “Complacency can be dangerous, but it’s hardly the only danger.”

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