Ever since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the terrorist threat to the West and to Americans in particular has been the subject of contentious debate. Is there a grave and urgent danger, or is it vastly exaggerated by the media and by politicians out to take advantage of popular fears? Does the real danger, as many civil libertarians argue, lie in the temptation to restrict liberties in response to this threat? Do we, in other words, have nothing to fear but fear itself?
There is little doubt that the terrorist threat has been exploited by politicians—including the Bush administration, which has used the specter of September 11 to justify questionable policies both foreign and domestic. Half-baked plots by incompetent wannabe jihadists are hyped as imminent attacks with devastating consequences. Recently, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff incurred much ridicule when he spoke of his "gut feeling" that a terrorist attack could be imminent.
This situation has led some civil libertarians, most notably Ohio State University political science professor John Mueller, to declare what left-wing enfant terrible Michael Moore was excoriated for writing a few years ago: There is no terrorist threat. In a 2006 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, Mueller notes that radical Islamic terrorists have not made a major attack on U.S. soil since September 11, and argues that this is unlikely to be due to the vigilance of homeland security. Mueller concludes that the Al Qaeda has been largely defanged and that terrorists are clearly not as determined, effective or ubiquitous as they are made out to be. Thus, he asserts, we may have authorized massive surveillance and detention programs and other restrictive policies in response to a phantom menace.
Yet a new National Intelligence Estimate contradicts Mueller's assessment of the threat level: according to the report, the Al Qaeda has regrouped and is now the strongest it has been since 2001. This is not Bush Administration propaganda. In fact, Bush critics, including The New Republic and New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, were quick to seize on the NIE as an indictment of the administration—for going after Saddam Hussein while failing to capture Osama Bin Laden, and for turning Iraq into a terrorist launching pad and recruiting tool.
This indictment may well be accurate, and quite damning for an administration that has used keeping Americans safe from terrorists as a catchall rationale. But is also a reminder that the terror threat is more than mere hype.
Most of the recent failed terror plots may have been inept exercises in fantasy. But even if one out of a thousand such plots succeeds, it could be a tragedy of horrific proportions, especially if biological weapons or suitcase nukes are involved. Clearly, not all terrorists are inept; besides, even the most inept of bumblers sometimes manage to get lucky. The 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which did only minor damage, was the work of amateurs of almost comical ineptitude. Eight years later, no one was laughing.
How to deal with this threat is another question. Civil libertarians (and others) have made plenty of legitimate criticisms of specific policies pursued under the umbrella of the War on Terror. We can point out that confiscating baby bottles at the airport does not make us safer; that torture not only debases us all but is quite likely to generate false and misleading information; that we don't have to resort to Kafkaesque indefinite detention of suspects to protect ourselves from terrorists. We can point out that the National Security Agency's post-September 11 monitoring of some telephone calls to foreign countries did not have to be carried out illegally and without minimal judicial safeguards; the administration's insistence on circumventing the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts seems to have been rooted in arrogance rather than necessity.
All these are vital arguments that must be heard. What's not going to help is dismissing the risk of a terrorist attack—an argument that can easily backfire, in a reversal of the story of the boy who cried wolf, if a major strike does happen. An even greater mistake is to is downplay the consequences of such an attack. Thus, in his Foreign Affairs article, Mueller writes, "Even if there were a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years, the likelihood that an individual American would number among the dead would be two hundredths of a percent (or one in 5,000)."
But this argument ignores the impact of such attacks on the friends and families of the victims—and the psychological impact on the entire nation (not to mention the economic devastation). It is true, as some have pointed out, that even in Mueller's extreme scenario, the annual casualties would still be far below the toll of auto accidents. But that does not mean we are irrational in our response to terrorism. For one, a large-scale disaster, even a natural one, draws more attention and thus elicits far more shock than many small incidents with a higher cumulative death toll. Perhaps more importantly, there are many things one can do to reduce one's risk of dying in a car crash. There is nothing one can do, short of moving into a bomb shelter, to minimize the risk of being killed or maimed in a random terrorist attack.
No society can regard large-scale casualties from terrorist acts as an acceptable risk. An individual can personally prefer a higher risk of death in such an attack over some expansion of government powers, but telling others to make the same choice is not a winning argument.
In the past, wars and other national security threats led to far worse assaults on American liberties than anything being contemplated now. Already, the majority of Americans seem willing to accept at least some curtailment of civil liberties in order to reduce the threat of terrorism. Even one more major attack, let alone three a year, could usher in some very dark days for freedom. If champions of civil liberties want to prevent that, they need to take a different approach: to show that the compromises we are being asked to accept will not make us safer, or that there are ways to make us more secure without sacrificing our bedrock principles. If they want to be heard when they warn about loss of liberty, they cannot afford to sound cavalier when they talk about loss of life.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor for reason.