One of the most difficult elements of coping with terrorist attacks is managing the emotions that it elicits from victims. It is a simple enough argument to state that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil would be unbearable to the American people, but such an attack is inevitable-if not from abroad, then from the new crop of “home-grown” extremists materializing everywhere from Portland, Oregon, to Fort Hood, Texas. The future of terrorist attacks in the U.S. is not going to be on the scale of Sept. 11. Instead, recent broadcasts by Yemeni al-Qaeda operatives show that their future strategy is to give America a “death of a thousand cuts”, rather than elaborate and theatrical events like Sept. 11. Nevertheless, the narrative justifying a continued presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is that of the prevention of another Sept. 11.
The prospect of a repeat of a terrorist attack on such a scale is awful, but that fear may be disproportionate to the amount of real damage an attack could do to the U.S. If this debate were taking place 30 years ago, it would be about the potential for nuclear war, with 300 million to 400 million dead from the start. If a lens of relativity is applied to the present when terrorism is the greatest threat to national security, then it may appear that America is building up the fear of terrorism far higher than it deserves. The U.S. has proven, time and again, that it is capable of rebounding, and after the dust clears, the greatest threat to the stability of U.S. power, U.S. government, and the livelihood of U.S. citizens will be of its own making.
Recent long term estimates by Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes place the long-term cost of the war
As in Afghanistan and Iraq at between $4 and $6 trillion, more than twice the financial burden of the economic crisis, and cost of retribution at about $2 billion (and the additional cost of the lives of two American soldiers) per victim of Sept. 11.
Such expenditure of blood and treasure has brought the U.S. neither peace nor peace of mind. The reason is that war is an impractical instrument for use in the fight against terrorists. Audrey Cronin, Professor of Strategy at the U.S. National War College, writes in her book How Terrorism Ends that “There is no reason to believe that the application of even more overwhelming military force, even if it were available, would end the al-Qaeda movement.” A stoic vigilance that consists in catching terrorists, such as the perpetrator of the recent attempted bombing of a city Christmas tree lighting in Portland, Oregon, and then tries and jails them through democratic due process, thus delegitimizing them from a monolithic threat to common criminals, is a far more reliable strategy. After all, “There is nothing glamorous about languishing in jail,” writes Cronin.
Such a strategy requires a trait that Americans have failed to demonstrate: patience, combined with the acceptance that casualties from terrorism cannot be avoided in the future but might be diminished if a new counter-terrorism approach is successful. Such an approach understands that “zero” is too unrealistic a target for the number of victims of terrorism. But more abstract forces, like emotion, are at work guiding voters and their respective policy makers in the wrong direction-one that demands an over-inflated budget for counter-terrorist operations. To make the conflict with terrorists a real war, with the real costs of war, is self-defeating. To deploy armies to fight terrorists is unsustainable, and it would be wiser to assume a more hardened posture and accept the occasional attack as the price of an open and globally connected society.
Indeed, Sept. 11 demanded a response, but the U.S. failed to assess the new battleground successfully, and reacted- understandably so-emotionally. And with terrorism, emotion is the primary target of the attackers. As global strategist Tom Barnett put it, “You could say that America pursued the knee-jerk reaction in response to Sept. 11. Since we could not easily track down the individual terrorists spread across this global network, we did the one thing we know how to do well: we invaded a nationstate.” And doing so made Americans feel strong again-acting tough when one has been made to look or feel weak is a reassuring method of self-medication. The price of such therapy in the wake of attacks is a different matter; if there is one thing the world has learned it is that, for America, therapy is expensive.
Nevertheless, the wars that the U.S. has been fighting for nearly a decade have failed to provide the catharsis that it sought. In the wake of Sept. 11, some 35 percent of respondents said that they were at least somewhat worried about becoming a victim of a terrorist attack. In 2010, that number has risen to 42 percent . Such a negative trend over ten years of fighting indicates that America is not getting the results it wanted from its wars against terrorism, or at least doesn’t believe so. It might also be the result of equating the dubious prospects of propping up a stable Afghan state with success or failure in the wider fight against terrorism. It is the dreariness that accompanies any national failure.
Answering this frustration may be the key to finding a viable alternative to the war on terrorism. The problem with fighting terrorism as a zero-sum, win-or-lose battle is that it forces psychological tolerance for attacks down to zero. While it is pleasing to hear elected officials say that even a single death from terrorism is unacceptable, the only way to keep such a promise is to have a counter-terrorism budget limit of infinity dollars. In this time of economic suffering, limitless budgets to support a fight that keeps a few hundred terrorists in their holes in the mountains as they try to avoid detection are not as palatable as they used to be. An effective war on terrorism should not be a conventionally staged “war,” but a state of vigilance. For only 10 percent of the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States could put untold tens of thousands of police and analysts into counterterrorism taskforces at home and abroad. Fighting a war is the proper way to defend against an invading army, but not against terrorists. The terrorists themselves, who are much more fluid and adaptable than 250,000 soldiers and equipment, have shown that they only need to send solitary soldiers with explosive underwear from Nigeria, or to air-mail explosive printer cartridges (the al-Qaeda answer to the unmanned aerial drones) from Yemen, for the U.S. government to turn its own citizens red with anger over being patted and scanned by their own federal security agents. Continued vigilance and a stoic ability to take a hit is a much more effective way to combat terrorism. Its endless nature prevents it from ever being claimed successful, and is thus impossible to “lose.” Impossible to lose if Americans can accept-not to be overly cliché-that war is not the answer.
The war on terrorism was not the first war to create a sense of solidarity and to bind the nation together when political differences would otherwise have hindered a consensus. Sept. 11 gave the American people a common enemy to rally against. Yet a population will only remain under such a spell for so long before war fatigue wears on even the most hawkish of advocates, revealing the gravest threat of all to a continued war on terrorism. Afghanistan has become the longest war in American history, and even as the specter of the Taliban looms ever stronger over the U.S.-backed Karzai government, American citizens, who ultimately fund the war and support it with their votes, favored unconditional withdrawal by 2011 53 percent to 42 percent according to a poll by CBS and the New York Times in October. After almost ten years of supposedly fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, Americans want out. They have more pressing matters to tend to, such as the rent and the job with which they pay it, with roughly half of all American respondents indicating they were afraid of missing the former or losing the latter. After all that has happened since Sept. 11, a national identity of “victim of terrorism” has started to give way to a national identity of “pauper.”
This begs for a new era of vigilance in lieu of war. However unpalatable it may be, we live in a world where terrorists are going to use those same globalized networks that we enjoy to export attacks into America. Part of the job description of hegemony is that there will be threats against it. Sept. 11, now almost a decade in the past, was a deep wound that shook the long-held assumption that America was impregnable. An overly-emotional and underplanned military endeavor in response to terrorist attacks satisfied the prideful need to feel strong after such an attack, but “American pride” has prevented America from consulting long term perspectives in a time of emotional crisis. While it may seem naive to suggest that the U.S. be able to take another Sept. 11 on the chin, regardless of how the U.S. behaves in the second decade of the 21st century, history may very well write off the first as a victory for Osama Bin Laden and an expensive lesson in forethought for the U.S.
That lesson may also be a lesson about the price of greatness. For the U.S., the occasional attack from dark angry hovels is the price of being the world’s most powerful nation. Americans, now faced with bigger problems at home, will continue to decrease their support for expeditionary counterterrorism efforts that resemble war in both dollars and blood. If the U.S. could afford to go to war in response to every terrorist attack, the county would already be gearing up for war in African nations where recent terrorist attempts have originated. Americans need to be emotionally strong as they are militarily, and finding a balance between the intolerable fight and a tolerable number of tragic victims is the only way for effective counterterrorism to be a viable long-term reality. Unless U.S. can learn to take a punch in this fight, they will continue to expend every available resource trying to get that elusive casualty number down to zero, and long after the rest of the world has accepted this reality and moved on, the U.S. will still have its head buried in the desert sand.