It might seem strange, only four days after a major terror plot was disrupted, to argue that the terror threat has been exaggerated. It might seem obtuse, at a time when Americans are prohibited from carrying bottled water (and Brits are prohibited from carrying almost anything) onboard airplanes for fear that it might be a bomb, to make the case that we are winning the war on terror. But I’m going to try.
For starters, this is not a new idea. Nearly two years ago, Ohio State University Professor John Mueller wrote about our “false sense of insecurity” in Cato’s Regulation magazine.
James Fallows’s cover story in the September Atlantic Monthly takes off in a similar vein. Fallows quotes Mueller, but also a number of other experts, and concludes that we should declare victory in the war against Al Qaeda, and focus our efforts going forward on a more targeted and effective military and diplomatic campaign.
The reason for Fallows’s relative optimism is straightforward enough:
because of al-Qaeda’s own mistakes, and because of the things the United States and its allies have done right, al-Qaeda’s ability to inflict direct damage in America or on Americans has been sharply reduced. Its successor groups in Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere will continue to pose dangers. But its hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing.
As my Cato colleague Gene Healy opined last week, less than two days before the terror plot burst into the news, “if and when another attack happens, it won’t disprove Fallows’s point: we do not now, if we ever did, face an existential threat from the likes of Al Qaeda.”
If you were inclined to believe this on August 8th (as I was), I would stipulate that nothing that we have learned since Thursday morning should cause us to change our mind.
With respect to the foiled terror plot, I am struck by three things:
- Although the depth of Muslim rage within the UK and Europe is palpable, the wider Muslim community remains an important ally in the fight to marginalize and eliminate the radicals within its ranks. The tip that launched the investigation came from a British Muslim concerned about the erratic behavior of an acquaintance;
- The British authorities tracked the would-be terrorists for nearly a year, and managed to maintain operational security despite strong cooperation with a number of foreign law enforcement and intelligence services (including both the United States and Pakistan); and,
- The capacity to wreak great havoc is not dependent upon state-sponsorship, or even the close and sustained support of a determined terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda; but such devastation is still on an order of magnitude smaller than anything that a state/government can do to another state/government.
The civilized world achieved a real success last week by breaking up the terror plot. Score a point for the good guys.
It is now up to the good guys to ensure that we don’t hand points to the bad guys. That is exactly what we will do if we respond to the terror threat in ways that further alienate the wider Muslim population; if we subvert the rule of law in order to prosecute potential terrorists; and if we resort to draconian measures to defend ourselves against certain events, and in the process needlessly infringe on individual rights.
One can have nearly perfect security in a police state. One hears of few terrorist plots in Cuba or North Korea. The challenge is in achieving adequate security in a free society, and now is the time to show that we are up to the task. Nearly five years after 9/11, we can and must ask what we can do to improve our standing, and, equally important, what should we stop doing that is making the problem worse?