The Phantom Menace

Al Qaeda was never an "existential" threat.

Editor's Note: This column is reprinted with permission of the Washington Examiner. Click here to read it at that site.

In a country starved for good news, we should be celebrating the fact that, after Sept. 11, 2001, we've gone 10 years without a major follow-up attack on American soil.

But some folks just refuse to be cheered up. At last week's GOP debate, Newt Gingrich helpfully reminded everyone that "there are people out there who want to kill us." Therefore, we need a Department of Homeland Security with the "capacity to respond to massive events that could kill hundreds of thousands of Americans in one morning."
That's a tall order for an institution whose core competence seems to be groping preschoolers on security lines.
More to the point, is there any evidence at all that that's the magnitude of the threat we're facing?

Last month's rough weather provoked some debate over whether the government overreacted to Hurricane Irene. But Irene killed more Americans in one weekend than jihadists have managed in a decade. Irene's death toll stands at 44; Islamic radicals in the U.S.—even counting the Beltway snipers, who looked more like random lunatics than al Qaeda operatives—have killed just over 30 since 9/11.

Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, an outrage, and a crime. Yet since 9/11, more than twice as many have died in what the FBI classifies as "hate crimes," and in a typical year more Americans die in random shootings than terrorist attacks. When incidents like the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres happen, most of us rightly resist the idea that we need to start jettisoning constitutional liberties to protect ourselves.

Is it government policy that's kept us safe? To some degree, sure. We've put great pressure on Al Qaeda's core leadership abroad, disrupting its ability to plot and raise funds.

But there's good reason to believe the Al Qaeda threat was never as "existential" as it was cracked up to be.
In 9/11's aftermath, FBI officials warned that there might be as many as 5,000 Al Qaeda operatives within the United States. FBI Director Robert Mueller insisted that the group had "developed a support infrastructure" with "the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the U.S. with little warning."

Yet in 2005, ABC News obtained a classified FBI report admitting that in a country supposedly honeycombed with Al Qaeda operatives, they couldn't find any. "To date," the report stated, "we have not identified any true 'sleeper' agents in the U.S."

Not much has changed in the six years since that memo.

Last week, RAND Corp. published a study looking at homegrown jihadi terrorism. Of the 32 "plots" uncovered in the U.S. since 9/11, "only 10 developed anything resembling an operational plan that identified a specific target, developed the means of attack, and offered a sequence of steps to carry [it] out." "Of these, six were Federal Bureau of Investigation stings" involving fake bombs—"on their own, only two individuals actually attempted to build devices. One was arrested while doing so, and the other's device failed."

The RAND report sums up: "Thus far, despite al Qaeda's intensive online recruiting campaign, their numbers remain small, their determination limp, and their competence poor."

In May 2010, after the Times Square bomber's jerry-rigged contraption of gas cans, firecrackers and fertilizer ruined his Pathfinder's upholstery, Attorney General Eric Holder proclaimed "the most dangerous impression we can draw is that this threat no longer exists."

But by convincing ourselves that the threat is "existential," we've wasted trillions and built a surveillance state that refuses to recede with the waning Al Qaeda threat. Complacency can be dangerous, but it's hardly the only danger.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008). He is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where this article originally appeared. Click here to read it at that site.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • O2||

    we're one truckbomb away fm not having done enough

  • Lowdog||

    Well then that settles it, I'm going to wet myself and beg for more money to be spent, and more paramilitary style police to be trained, to help defend this poor little country.

  • TWylite||

    An Existential Threat is what sophomore literature professors wield over their students if they don't read the assigned Sartre and Camus texts. Anyways, as always, The Onion was way ahead of this story years before the mainstream press. When Bush et. al told us to "go shopping" after 9/11, it was not a misguided consumerist sentiment, but actually a carefully constructed counterterrorism tactic: http://www.theonion.com/articl.....cent,2225/

  • ||

    I always found the use of "existential threat" to be amusing and used it once in an interview.

  • Almanian||

    GIBSON: National security is a whole lot more than energy.

    TAKEI: Is it, Charles? Is it really?

    Superb!

  • ||

    I miss the whole "George Takei is the real vice president" series. That was fun, and that interview was probably my favorite posting.

  • Realist||

    "In a country starved for good news, we should be celebrating the fact that, after Sept. 11, 2001, we've gone 10 years without a major follow-up attack on American soil."
    Why would terrorists spend another few thousand dollars to attack us again???
    9/11 was the gift to terrorists that keeps on giving. We have spent over a billion dollars per 9/11 death....with no end in sight!!! This country is going down the shitter.

  • Esteban||

    What gift have the terrorists received? Being killed? I guess they wanted to die anyway. Other than that, the last decade hasn't been too good for Al-Qaeda and similar groups.

  • ||

    Other than the restructuring and restrictions on interstate and international travel freedoms, state-sponsored unlawful detentions, searches and seizures, and the general dismantling of civil liberties? No not much.

    For the terrorists, a few lives were a small price to pay to succeed in their mission - they have instilled terror at every level of America, and our government perpetuates it.

    When the mission is glorious death to further the Cause - well, then it hasn't been such a bad decade for them after all, has it? Especially since we're fighting their war for them.

  • ||

    You left out the virtual destruction of the airline industry and fear of dark-skinned people wearing funny clothes getting on airplanes.

  • k2000k||

    Well by all accounts they have failed to instigate massive muslim uprising in the US, or really even in the Mideast. I wouldn't say this decade has beem good for them they have been driven to the point were the moment the US realizes that unilaterally inserting troops or bombing nations to find them is counterproductive to our aims is the moment that the last support structure keeping these guys going disappears. Whether or not our govement wakes up to this idae?

  • Esteban||

    You think Al-Qaeda's goal was for the US to restrict civil liberties? You know very little about their ideology then. Do you live in everyday fear of a terrorist attack, like they wanted? Has the economy been destroyed because of paralysis due to fear of an attack? Yes, the 9/11 attacks contributed to the recession of 2000-2002, but the economy recovered and the economic stagnation now has nothing to due with terrorism.
    What war are we fighting for them? While the Taliban has been able to continue, though they don't control most, Al-Qaeda has been mostly destroyed.

  • Esteban||

    *they don't control most of Afghanistan like they did from 93-2001.

    And Al-Qaeda certainly doesn't control Iraq. So what have they gained?

  • ||

    Terrorist coverage market share!

  • Mîchael s. Langston||

    I concur that Al Qaeda has been virtually destroyed in the last decade. They have gone from planning maasive attacks, to in many cases claiming credit for foiled attacks.... something they didn't use to do.

    & it's continued under Obama. Source: Stratfor.

    Opinion: this was the obvious result of a direct fight between then US and Al Qaeda. The US has the resources to continue this longer than Al Qaeda can hide and plan ressurgence. Any country would try with the weapons at their disposal to do the same under similar circumstances as the goal is to change the payoffs for such actions to
    the point as to discourage future actions from all other groups.

    Has the US gone too far? Sure, any bill like the Patriot Act, which had no real debate and passed almost unanimously, and reenacted under the administration who claimed it was unConstitutional, holds all kinds of crap including anti-1st Amendment things.

    Did Al Qaeda get what they wanted?

    Maybe.

    Are they happy they got it and better off?

    No.

  • Ice Nine||

    If "jerry-rigged contraption of gas cans, firecrackers and fertilizer" were the problem, Healy's argument would be more convincing. As might be knowing precisely what is his idea of "existential". A few hundred thousand potentially vaporized New Yorkers might have a slightly different definition of it.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    New York, sure. But what about the Kansas gingers?

    http://www.criminalwatch.com/terrorism/ks.asp

  • Ice Nine||

    I've long said that all the ridiculous airport "security" was fighting the last war and that enterprising terrorists will next do something like take out some little bible college in Kansas.

    "Gingers"??

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Ginger - defamatory British term for redheads

    Wake me when one of the camel-humpers can point to Kansas on the map. High profile cities and military have been their preferred targets in the US so far. Nobody in central Asia has heard or cares about the Mid-West as far as I can tell.

  • Ice Nine||

    My "prediction" was tongue-in-cheek.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Actually, I've told people that your prediction, or at least a variation of it, has some strategic merit. If Al-Qaeda switched to Palestinian style of terrorism in America (soft targets: convenience stores, fast food restaurants, supermarkets, bookstores, nightclubs), places where no one would notice someone dropping a bomb under or over a shelf, or in a trashcan, they would do far more psychological, and possibly financial, damage to America than going for the big "crash planes into buildings" attacks they seem to favor.

  • Ice Nine||

    Oh, absolutely. That part was serious. Just the little midwestern school example was more or less TIC.

  • ||

    True. I've never understood why they keep going for the Big One when a thousand little ones would cause much more misery.

    They don't seem to understand that they could, for example, nearly shut down Washington DCs subway system by setting off a small explosion anywhere along the tracks. Or park a "suspicious looking" van on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge around rush hour. Instant gridlock.

    The actual damage wouldn't matter. In either scenario, thousands of people would be stranded at subway stations or in their cars while the authorities slowly, meticulously dealt with the situation. A long string of such attacks might not kill many people or wreck the economy, but it would do enormous psychological damage. People would be constantly stressed, never knowing when the next attack would occur. And they'd lose confidence in their leaders, the police, and the military.

    Americans don't have a seige mentality like Israelis do. I wonder if we could handle such a never-ending, low-intensity sabotage campaign?

  • Sean Healy||

    If Al Qaeda had the manpower inside the US to do this, they would. But they don't, so they have to rely on the spectacular.

  • Ludwig Hebl||

    "jerry-rigged"

    RACIST!!!!!!1!!!!!1111

  • GILMORE||

    To sell something, a salesperson must tap into one of two core emotions: Fear or Greed.

    Greed is harder to make work. (perhaps surprisingly) Because if you don't at least deliver *some* kind of experience that makes the risk seem worth it (see: Las Vegas), your customers quickly stop believing in the possibility of any future payoff. (see: Obama)

    Fear is the gift that keeps on giving. Fear works even when the thing being feared turns out to be not that big of a deal. If it exists at all. "You can't be overly cautious"..."Better safe than sorry"... Fear never requires any vindication the way greed does. Greed has a bad hangover when it is completely unsatisfied. (guilt) Fear apologizes for itself and perhaps even gives people a sense of satisfaction that their preservational instincts are so robust. Fear is a stimulating end in itself.

    "there are people out there who want to kill us."

    That's been true for everyone since the dawn of time. What makes now special?

    I live in NYC and I don't doubt that this city will be hit by some significant act of terrorism again in my lifetime. That's not any particular fear, just a fact, I think. Terrorism needs an audience, and this is the Big Stage. makes sense.

    i nevertheless still get irritated by the 'random subway searches' because I know they're an excuse that covers up for all the stuff they're *not* doing to protect the mass transit system. We may bitch about all the wasted money by the DHS, etc., but fuck, its even more irritating considering that of all that money, not *one nickel* has been spent to secure the most trafficked mass-transit system in America.

    I can understand why the feds wouldn't want to get involved in the bottomless money-hole that is the MTA. Maybe. But it adds an extra dimension of pathetic to the whole "Security" question. I'd ask Newt what he'd do about it, maybe? Hem and haw. The insult-cherry on top of the sundae of stupid that is the DHS and all Federal 'Security' spending is the fact that almost everything they do is focused on the least-useful dimensions of security. Even if you agreed with Newtster that We Should Live in Fear... I'd still kick him in the balls for suggesting we enlarge or support an exiting Security Bureaucracy that is such an obvious failure and waste of resources.

  • Islamic Terrorist||

    "Terrorism needs an audience, and this is the Big Stage. makes sense."

    If we can make it here...

  • ||

    to use a hackneyed phrase, THIS!!!

  • Almanian||

    ...so I'll put you down as a "Maybe".

  • ||

    You don't hear it as much these days, but back in the years following 9/11, it was common to hear claims that we had to crush terrorism or face destruction. Having lived through the Cold War, with nuclear missiles targeted pretty much at my home, it's kind of hard to take that kind of hyperbole seriously.

    Not to say that Western lives aren't at stake from terror--they were and are--but perspective is a good thing to have, now and again.

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    Are you telling me that you don't believe that sharia law isn't going to be established in Nebraska? Did you just crawl out from under a rock or something?

  • Ice Nine||

    Yep. That - and the good sense to not live in NY, DC or LA.

  • Neolibertarian||

    39 terror plots foiled since 9/11:

    http://ihartpolitics.com/?p=274

    It's like, "I've never been mugged, why do we need police?"

  • Scruffy Nerfherder||

    "Awais Younis, also known by the alias Sundullah “Sunny” Ghalzai, was arrested by the FBI after a law enforcement official discovered several threats he had made against the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area via the social networking site Facebook. Younis discussed placing pipe bombs on Metrorail cars and in the sewer system of Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood during rush hour. Younis was charged with communicating threats via interstate communications."

    "On May 20, 2009, the New York Police Department announced the arrest of James Cromitie, David Williams, Onta Williams, and Laguerre Payen for plotting to blow up New York-area Jewish centers and shoot down planes at a nearby Air National Guard Base.[73] The four had attempted to gain access to Stinger missiles and were caught in the act of placing bombs in the buildings and in a car. (The bombs were duds, because undercover agents sold the four defendants fake explosives as part of an ongoing sting operation). All four men were found guilty. They have not yet been sentenced, but could face up to life in prison."

    The Facebook Bomber and the Entrapped Morons included. At least they didn't sell them working weapons to see where they would end up.

  • Eric Holder||

    Ixnay.

  • GILMORE||

    As the quoted Rand Corp. study notes, of these, 20% were in fact sting operations by federal authorities luring incompetent people into agreeing to try something 'terroristic'

    And of the remainder...

    e.g. only 10 developed anything resembling an operational plan that identified a specific target, developed the means of attack, and offered a sequence of steps to carry [it] out.

    Note that the "real" threats/attempts that we actually faced were things like

    *the idiot who tried to blow his feet off, and now has millions taking their shoes off in airports...

    *the guy who blew his underwear up and hurt no one except himself,

    etc.

    Its not that 'muggers' don't exist, its that they're mostly fucking retards. The ones that are out there that are genuinely scary? We do nothing effective about them because we're so busy hyperventilating about the myriad others. Or inventing them ourselves so we can "bust" them and make people like you feel like they're actually doing something.

    It's not that we 'don't need police' - it's that we don't need approaches to policing that pretend to be providing security when they actually don't do anything effective at all.

    By your token, not only should we be taking our shoes off in airports when we don't need to, but should be submitting to full body-cavity searches *because its doing something*. And *something* is always good right? Wrong.

  • k2000k||

    Agreed, the cold hard reality is that if the terrorists ever possessed the skill and cunning that we give them in movies or in political speeches existed, there would be very little you can do to stop them outside of getting a lucky break. I just looking at Israel we see how overblown this terrorism thing is in the US. Israel deals with frequent suicide bombings and attacks. In a nation of 300 million it really isn't a stretch to think that some of them would try and mimeck those attacks? But we do not see this happening. When looked at it that way you are forced to conclude that terrorism just isn't as big a threat as it is made out to be for this country.

  • ||

    only 10 developed anything resembling an operational plan

    So, one a year.

    My guess is that most of these, if they had actually come off, would have resulted in fewer casualties than the WOD did that year.

    Jus' sayin', is all.

  • ||

    if the WTC terrorists had been caught while the crime was still inchoate, rest assured the same claims would be made e.g. "these were some incompetent dreamers. they could never successfully do this. it was FBI entrapment. NORAD would shoot them down anyway" etc.

  • GILMORE||

    While your point is taken (or at least understood), your case in point is pretty bullshit.

    There were people in the FBI and the CIA (as well as the general public) taking 'these people' very seriously ever since the first attempt on the WTC in 1993, and the Kenya/Tanz. embassy bombings in 1998. Claiming people would call them 'incompetent dreamers' is pretty silly given they already had a body count racked up. Richard Reid? Not so much.

    It is pretty fair to call, say, Joseph Padilla, aka 'The Dirty Bomber' an incompetent dreamer, because he was, in fact, an incompetent dreamer. He couldnt collect enough radiological material to make a watch-dial glow in the dark, much less irradiate a city.

    Your attitude seems to be, "unless we're shitting ourselves in fear all the time, True Security cannot be achieved"? You dismiss people who belittle the enormity of the Terrorist Threat? That nothing other than complete obeisance to The Security Complex is akin to irresponsible treason?

    Why is saying, 'We should match our approach to security to the actual threats', wrong? Because thats what people are mostly saying.

    I pointed out that most security is idiotic, and that one of the most vulnerable targets in America (the NYC subway system) has had *nothing* done since 9/11.

    Are you arguing that all the money we've spent, say, building a wall across the Mexican border, makes more NYC residents 'safer' than if they'd focused on my hometown?

    My point is that the actual existing threats are not as bad as the politicians make out, and what threats actually DO exist (like an inevitable attack in NYC again), they do @()#*@# nothing useful about.

    Is that silly of me to point out?

  • ||

    no, i am saying the specific belief that a few guys with boxcutters (or whatever cutting instrument they had) could

    1) hijack two planes
    2) fly them WAY off course , into a busy metro airspace and
    3) into the WTC

    would be looked at as a bunch of silly jihadist dreamers with no realistic chance of succeeding.

    iow, they would be viewed as the same sad losers as many view many of the others that are being caught for inchoate offenses, not to mention the almost always ridiculous claims of "entrapment"

    again, we have the benefit of HINDSIGHT and we know it wasn't only possible, it was done. and again, even after the first plane, they succeeded with the second

    those also who claimed the chinese wall between CIA and FBI etc. where the former could not share external intel with the latter were looked at as unamerican etc. for daring to believe that the FBI and CIA should share intel. the clinton justice dept. made it expressly illegal to do so.

    i work for govt. i read the 9/11 commission report and just kept nodding my head, because i KNOW all the fuckups that were made were so so so so so typical of govt. work.

    fwiw, the institutional bias is always towards underreaction/inaction (despite the reason meme to the contrary), and if people die so be it

    it happened in mardi gras in seattle with kris kime being killed because SPD didn't want to "engage the " rioting crowd with nightsticks and were ordered to stay on the corner and WATCH them riot by their admin

    it happened in columbine where those pussy fucking local cops stood by and let more kids get slaughtered based on their training (pre ASAP) where police academies taught "just wait for SWAT" "don't be a hero" and other pussy shit like that.

    you saw it happen in maui (i did personally) where the admin refused to send in a SWAT team pending further negotiation when there was good reason to believe daniel kosi would kill again one of the hostages (he had already tied a woman up, stuffed her in a trunk and planned to take her to the cane fields and kill her since she was a witness). only after kosi sawed through a victim's neck with a knife and then threw the victim into the hallway did we get the OK to send SWAT in.

    law enforcement admins, "official training", and govt. in general does this shit all the fucking time.

    and again, if we caught those murderous assholes planning to take out the WTC the case would be laffed at by the same kind of ignorati who laff at these other inchoate offenses as just wacky incompetents that aren't a "real threat"

    plus ca fucking change

  • ||

    We've always been at war with Eastasia.

  • ||

    "20% were in fact sting operations by federal authorities"
    Yes they were sting operations but they were against people who were actively searching for help to commit terror and those are the types the terrorist look for, rubes, so in effect we are just lucky that the FBI was paying attention and trapped a few before they could do anything.

  • ||

    I think a really important question to ask is why we didn't get attacked much prior to 9/11. For me, the inescapable conclusion is that most Islamic fanatics realized that hitting us hard enough to get us to ramp up our involvement in the Middle East would be fucking stupid. Which is what al Qaeda and bin Laden were to launch the attacks. It was totally predictable that the U.S. would launch a massive, retaliatory response.

  • ||

    we DID get attacked much before 9/11. among other attacks, they tried to bring down the WTC before...

    they were just unsuccessful

  • ||

    so, the failure rate at bombing was high, but they hit upon genius with planes. Now they'll never be able to take 757's into large buildings again, so they'll back to their mostly failed attempts to blow things up.

    Let's not forget that the most successful bomber was an ex-military guy with extensive background and no fancy chemicals, just shittons of fertilizer.

    In fact, since 9/11, in the US crazy people with guns have killed more people than legitamite terrorists.

  • ||

    I said much. And my point remains valid. We were and are an easy target--open society and very porous borders.

  • tarran||

    And orders from the U.S. government to flight crews directing them to cooperate with hijackers.

  • Almanian||

    The guys on the Cole and at the embassey would like a word with you...if they weren't dead.

  • ||

    not to mention the first WTC attack. the goal was the same. it just wasn't (as ) successful.

  • ||

    Like I said, we weren't hit much, and I was talking about domestic terror, not attacks overseas. I think it's clear that we treat foreign attacks much differently than attacks on our shores.

  • The Heresiarch||

    39 "plots" in a nation of over 300 million? OMG! Why didn't you say so? Please, dismantle the whole consitution...I'm wetting myself with fear!

    Pussy.

  • MNG||

    The military industrial complex must have a bogeyman. When the Soviets declined there was dangerous talk of a peace dividend. So we simply could not see 9/11 as a law enforcement problem, it had to be a military one, and it could not be just this rag-tag terrorist group were were fighting, that would not justify a Cold-War level effort, it had to be Islamo-fascism.

  • Esteban||

    Yes, we should have just arrested OBL, KSM, and Zawahiri, because they would have totally just surrendered if we issued arrest warrants. Maybe if we politely asked Mullah Omar to surrender OBL and himself, he would have.

  • ||

    When the Soviets declined there was dangerous talk of a peace dividend.

    Actually, there was a peace dividend. Our armed forces are much smaller now. I don't even know that they've grown much, if at all, to fight the WOT.

    Treating it as a law enforcement problem has its own set of difficulties. First, of course, is jurisdiction. Second, you get to make the choice between going after the perps after they've done the dirty, or setting up these easily-mocked and quite dubious sting operations. Third, of course, is getting laws in place that allow you to pursue it as a law enforcement operation - sweeping anti-terror laws, surveillance, etc.

    If you want to go the law enforcement route, you're pretty much assured of a PATRIOT Act, with all its ills.

  • ||

    There's some sense to that. We've been fighting them "over there," and "over there" has gotten pretty messed up. The possible alternative is to ignore them abroad, let them come here, and then fight them in our own cities. We saw how the cops behaved after they started dealing with Colombian and Jamaican drug gangs. Military-style weapons and tactics became institutionalized in law enforcement. What happens when we ask our police to fight jihadi suicide bombers? I think the cops will take the same "better safe than dead" approach and go full paramilitary, if only in self-defense. I don't want that to happen and I don't think the cops do, either.

  • Feministing||

    "rag-tag"

    We play that.

  • Warty||

    Let's have some old-school Satanism. Catchy.

  • Maria||

    How can I email a copy of this ?

  • Jeff Perren||

    The Federal government has indeed made disastrous errors fighting jihadists over the past 10 years, the main one being the refusal to destroy Iran's Islamist regime utterly, as it deserved over 30 years ago.

    But then, Mr. Healy would no doubt be horrified by the suggestion we should do that.

  • ||

    If you're going to fight this as a war, then fight it as a fucking war. And that would mean taking down Iran.

    Unfortunately, we quit halfway through the war to do nation-building. To use the very tired WWII analogy, stopping after Iraq and Afghanistan would have been like stopping WWII after we conquered Italy and liberated France.

  • ||

    It would also mean taking down Saudi.

  • ||

    Al Qaeda is not a real threat to America, because Al Qaeda is Arabian and does not care about America. Their goal is to make Arab society more Islamic. There is an end goal of enlightening the entire world under Islam, but that is only an end goal.

    The 9/11 attack was merely one of many thousands launched worldwide by Al Qaeda (and allied groups) over the past two decades. Few attacks on America have been attempted since, just like few were attempted before.

    America is almost irrelevent.

  • ابراج اليوم||

    thanx

  • db||

    ALT TEXT FAIL.

    Here's a suggestion:
    "Is that a 50-round magazine or is your Krinkov just happy to see me?"

  • ||

    No, it was never an existential threat. But I don't remember too many people actually claiming it was. By far the most pervasive opinion of al Qaeda on the Right was that al Qaeda a long-term, low-grade threat to Americans, and the possibility of a larger threat further down the line if nothing was done about it. So there seems a bit of a straw-man going on here.

    There were always a few loud voices claiming otherwise. The thing to keep in mind is how expansive America's response *could* have been if al Qaeda really *had* been seen as an existential threat. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been terribly expensive in the grand scheme of things. Deficits weren't skyrocketing late in Bush's term (until the banking fiasco), they were *declining*. Despite the wars.

    As for the civil liberties issues ... granted. But again, it's hard for me to see the Patriot Act, etc., as anything other than minor blips on the radar. Yes, they're infuriatingly stupid and wasteful and unprincipled. But aside from inconvenient flying, most Americans don't notice a difference from day to day.

    Yes, it's bad. But it could have been so much worse. And it would have been if the people in charge had truly thought al Qaeda was truly an existential threat. No doubt it would have been better if the powers that be had realized that al Qaeda was nothing more than a paper tiger that some minor military and economic pressure could have kept at bay. But pretending that the actual response was some massive overreaction is silly. It was an overreaction, yes. It started a long trend of bad decisions and precedents. But little that can't be undone with an election and a few strokes of a pen.

  • Mr. Mark||

    I've never heard anyone call al Qaida an existential threat.

    Therefore, all of this babbling about how it's not an existential threat seems rather odd.

  • The Crackshot Crackpot||

    Some libertarians continue to argue - still! - that the U.S. should act as benevolent liberal hegemon: Libertarian Military Isolationism: Forward all, With Eyes Tightly Shut

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement