The war of terror

At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick writes:

…what was once tough on terror is now soft on terror. And each time the Republicans move their own crazy-place goal posts, the Obama administration moves right along with them.

It’s hard to explain why this keeps happening. There hasn’t been a successful terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The terrorists who were tried in criminal proceedings since 9/11 are rotting in jail. The Christmas Day terror attack was both amateurish and unsuccessful. The Christmas bomber is evidently cooperating with intelligence officials without the need to resort to thumbscrews. In a rational universe, one might conclude that all this is actually good news. But in the Republican crazy-place, there is no good news. There’s only good luck. Tick tock. And the longer they are lucky, the more terrified Americans have become.

I’ve always argued that it’s misleading and dangerous to treat “terror” and “terrorism” as synonyms.

As “the war on terrorism” quickly became “the war on terror” — a contraction that generally seems to have been be viewed as nothing more than a tabloid construction — terror was treated as an inescapable consequence of terrorism, such that there was supposedly no reason to distinguish between the objects of our fear and the fear itself.

The problem with arguing that our fears have grown out of proportion to the threats is that all it will take is for there to be another major terrorist attack in America (note in, not on — the whole country is never in jeopardy of attack) and the fear-mongers will trumpet that they have been vindicated. Indeed, they will inevitably blame — alongside the attackers — those who previously suggested that America’s fears were overblown.

The alternative argument — one that no populist has the courage to press — is that in response to the 9/11 attacks, America plunged into a shameful state of national hysteria.

Al Qaeda presented a challenge to this country in 2001. It tried to find out whether nineteen men were capable of making 600 million knees wobble. It accomplished that feat with resounding success.

The spectacle of a whole nation being so easily terrorized had two immediate effects.

It demonstrated to jihadists that their presupposition that it is quite easy to make Americans afraid was well-founded.

And it led others (mostly Americans themselves) to view American fear as fertile ground in which commercial, political and military opportunities of incalculable value could easily be cultivated.

At no point did anyone of national stature step up and say to the American people: get a grip on yourselves. You should neither capitulate to the terrorists nor to the fear-mongers since they both have the same objective: they want to make you live in fear.

The fear-mongers say that the only way of averting fear is to feel safe and secure. That’s true — but only for about the first ten years in life. After that, as we mature we must learn how to live in a dangerous world without becoming enslaved by our own fears.

So, the first rule when it comes to dealing with terrorism is to remember that we are adults and that life demands a sufficient measure of courage such that we don’t shriek every time someone shouts boo!

Once we have a national consensus on our need to act like adults, then we proceed with all the practical and necessary steps to avoid becoming sitting ducks. Counter-terrorism then becomes a matter of prudence — not a vice for gripping the national psyche.

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