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Overreactions to Terrorism Weaken Us

Two good essays in the last few days reflect on America’s overreaction to terrorism. Ted Koppel, who in addition to having amazing hair, is one of this country’s most under-appreciated journalists. He writes:

Perhaps bin Laden foresaw some of these outcomes when he launched his 9/11 operation from Taliban-secured bases in Afghanistan. Since nations targeted by terrorist groups routinely abandon some of their cherished principles, he may also have foreseen something along the lines of Abu Ghraib, “black sites,” extraordinary rendition and even the prison at Guantanamo Bay. But in these and many other developments, bin Laden needed our unwitting collaboration, and we have provided it — more than $1 trillion spent on two wars, more than 5,000 of our troops killed, tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans dead. Our military is so overstretched that defense contracting — for everything from interrogation to security to the gathering of intelligence — is one of our few growth industries. …

If bin Laden did not foresee all this, then he quickly came to understand it. In a 2004 video message, he boasted about leading America on the path to self-destruction. “All we have to do is send two mujaheddin . . . to raise a small piece of cloth on which is written ‘al-Qaeda’ in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses.”

Fareed Zakaria, whose hair is less awesome but still pretty good, brings up the same issue:

This campaign to spread a sense of imminent danger has fueled a climate of fear and anger. It has created suspicions about U.S. Muslims — who are more assimilated than in any other country in the world. Ironically, this is precisely the intent of terrorism. Bin Laden knew he could never weaken America directly, even if he blew up a dozen buildings or ships. But he could provoke an overreaction by which America weakened itself.

Both are spot on and quickly shift the question to how to avoid overreacting.  Since much of the overreaction is born from political posturing (witness Pete Hoekstra’s bizarre comments in the wake of the Christmas Day attempt), it’s going to be tough.  How is any leader supposed to dismiss a charge that he’s not doing enough to keep the country safe?

Part of the solution is understanding the terrorist threat, and how successful our defensive measures will realistically be.  Zakaria’s column again hits the mark:  “[We] are not 100 percent safe, nor will we ever be. Open societies and modern technology combine to create a permanent danger.”

And while it is possible to contain the threat, permanently eliminating it is a long term project that must address terrorism’s root causes.  Beginning that national dialogue is a key to promote this understanding, which in turn, will calibrate more measured responses to terrorism.


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