For anyone who has grown complacent about the danger of terrorism, the incidents in London and Glasgow were supposed to provide a jolt of reality. As former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy put it, "these foiled attacks are best understood as new rounds in a long, global war, provoked by the challenge of radical Islam." Here was proof that the jihadists are still out there, ready to strike at the moment of their choosing.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff clearly agrees. On a visit Tuesday to the Chicago Tribune, he said he has a "gut feeling" an attack may be imminent. "The intent to attack us remains as strong as it was on Sept. 10, 2001," he declared.
Well, no one in that job is ever going to say the danger has been overstated. But the truth is that intent and ability are not the same thing. Though, al Qaeda may—emphasize "may"—still have the capacity to mount the occasional major operation, that doesn't mean terrorism should be treated as an omnipresent, existential threat.
In reality, this fight bears only a faint resemblance to a real war. Only rarely can al Qaeda and its imitators manage a strike against their prime enemies, Britain and the United States, and even more rarely can they succeed. Like the alleged terrorists who planned to attack Fort Dix and JFK International Airport, the perpetrators in Britain were not trained professionals but bumbling amateurs.
On Sept. 12, 2001, it was easy to believe that we would suffer dozens of major attacks on U.S. soil over the next six years, and almost impossible to imagine we would suffer none. Instead of being the opening blitz of a "long, global war," 9/11 was a freak event that may never be replicated.
In a real war, such as the ones we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, many people die, week in and week out. But John Mueller, a national security professor at Ohio State University, notes that in a typical year, no more than a few hundred people are killed worldwide in attacks by al Qaeda and similar groups outside of war zones.
That's too many, but it's not a danger on the order of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union or even Saddam Hussein. It's more like organized crime—an ongoing problem demanding unceasing vigilance, a malady that can be contained but never eliminated.
By framing the fight as a global war, we have helped Osama bin Laden and hurt ourselves. Had we treated him and his confederates as the moral equivalent of international drug lords or sex traffickers, the organization might not have the romantic image it has acquired. By exaggerating the potential impact, we also magnified the disruptive effect of any plots, which is just what the terrorists seek.
We do further harm to ourselves by accepting government actions we would never tolerate except in the context of war. Recently, a federal appeals court threw out a lawsuit challenging the National Security Agency's secret surveillance of phone calls made between the United States and foreign countries.
The judges' reasoning was right out of "Catch-22": You can't sue unless you can prove you've been wiretapped, but you can't prove it because the wiretappers won't tell you. The government abuses its power secretly, in the name of national security, and the secrecy protects it from having to end the abuse.
Crime is a serious national problem that used to be even worse. At the height of the mayhem, more than 24,000 Americans were murdered annually—a Sept. 11, 2001, attack every six weeks. Yet even when the toll was at its worst, we insisted that police respect the constitutional rights of suspected criminals. We maintained the limits on the power of the president and other law enforcement officials to investigate and imprison people. For the most part, we kept our perspective.
After the World Trade Center came down, by contrast, we let ourselves be convinced that many restrictions were an unaffordable luxury. Any concern for civil liberties was met with the retort: "We're at war." And in war, anything goes.
The 9/11 attack was a crisis that has largely passed, but no one in Washington wants to admit it. It's politically safer to depict the danger as undiminished no matter how long we go without an attack. But someday, we will look back and ask if we were acting out of sensible caution or unfounded panic.
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