Symposium | A Decade Squandered

Perspective, Please

By Robert Wright

Tagged Terrorism

A few days after 9/11, I was talking to an op-ed page editor at a major newspaper, pitching a piece I wanted to write. The piece was going to stress the importance of controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction. I was going to argue that, horrific as 9/11 had been, it was nothing compared to what terrorists might accomplish decades from now if we didn’t get nuclear and biological weapons under control. Underscoring the point, I said to the editor, “The truth is, 3,000 deaths isn’t all that many deaths.”

She replied, “You can’t say that.”

She was right. Feelings were so raw right after 9/11 that seeming to minimize its magnitude would have discredited anything else I said in the piece. In fact, even seeming to minimize its magnitude now—a decade after the event—probably won’t help my popularity.

I think this is our main enemy in the war on terror: the difficulty we have keeping terrorism’s toll in perspective. This difficulty is responsible for some disastrous post-9/11 policies and is likely to bring more of them—a succession of “anti-terrorism” initiatives that increase the amount of terrorism we face. It’s a positive-feedback cycle of a negative sort: Terrorist attack happens, we freak out and react with dumb policies that help jihadist recruiters, and this in turn leads to more terrorism, more overreaction, more dumb policies, and so on. This vicious circle has already completed one revolution, in three clearly identifiable phases.

Phase one: America invades Iraq. Advocates of the war rely heavily on our blinding overreaction to 9/11, on retributive rage and a panicked sense of vulnerability. How else to explain that, in order to find suspected weapons of mass destruction, we invaded a country that was at that moment letting UN inspectors look wherever they wanted for those weapons? Meanwhile, as the Iraq War goes on, the Afghan War—the one arguably justified post-9/11 war—spawns another war, or at least quasi-war, as we start using drone strikes in Pakistan.

Phase two: The 9/11 wars and quasi-wars lead to terrorist attacks. Major Nidal Hasan, who at Fort Hood perpetrated the biggest post-9/11 terrorist attack on American soil, was, colleagues said, enraged by the two wars. The would-be Times Square bomber said his goal was to avenge the killing of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Phase three: America overreacts to the terrorist attacks. The Times Square bomber was a follower of the exiled American jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki (as was the foiled “underwear bomber” of 2009). In May, America targeted al-Awlaki, in Yemen, with a drone strike. “We were hoping it was him,” said a U.S. official. But it turned out to be, as one news account put it, “two brothers believed to be Al Qaeda militants.”

Oh well, maybe next time we’ll get him. Or maybe next time we’ll get two brothers who, after the post-mortem, aren’t even “believed to be” Al Qaeda militants. (Maybe they’ll be killed because they have the same names as high-profile militants—as has, in fact, happened.) In any event, we’ve come full circle: We’ve responded to terrorists created by our killing of Muslims in foreign countries by killing more Muslims in foreign countries. This could go on awhile.

Certainly President Obama seems bent on sustaining it. In addition to authorizing the assassination of al-Awlaki (an American citizen, by the way, in theory guaranteed due process by our Constitution), the President has massively expanded drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he recently extended them to Somalia, even as they continue in Yemen.

The scary thing is that this policy makes sense—not from the standpoint of our long-term national security, but from the standpoint of Obama’s short-term political security. Job one, if you’re running a country that’s totally freaked out by terrorism, is to make sure no terrorism happens before the next election. And presumably some of these strikes in Pakistan and Yemen do disrupt the efforts of anti-American terrorists. That these same strikes will, in the long run, create two or three terrorists for every one they kill—and that some of the new terrorists will have the tactical advantage of already living in America—is not, strictly speaking, Obama’s problem. It’s America’s problem.

And it could become a truly epic problem. I still think the apocalyptic warning I gave to that op-ed editor was on target. In an age when non-state actors are the main security threat, it’s crucial to strengthen the international system for controlling weapons of mass destruction (not just for nuclear weapons but, more challengingly, for biological weapons). But that won’t be enough, because even the best-case scenario is a slightly leaky nonproliferation system. And the more determined, hateful people there are looking for leaks, the more likely leakage is—so the more likely is a terrorist event that makes 3,000 deaths look like not that many deaths.

That’s the reason the strengthened governance of weapons of mass destruction has to be accompanied by a campaign to reduce the amount of hatred in the world. Much of the campaign is simple in principle: Quit doing the kinds of things that have made so many in the Muslim world hate the United States. Get our troops out of Muslim lands, stop firing drones into their countries. In other words, shift our war-on-terror strategy decisively into reverse. And, as a bonus, we might quit abetting an ultra-right-wing Israeli government’s continued humiliation of Palestinians.

Maybe you can’t blame Obama for his counterproductive anti-terrorism policies. Did you see the obsessive news coverage occasioned by the Times Square bomb that didn’t go off? Imagine if it had gone off! Who wants to be a first-term president who gets blamed for that lapse of security? And what president wouldn’t respond by promising to kill more bad guys, and doing various other things (like intensify surveillance of American Muslims) that bring eventual blowback?

Still, imagine an alternative universe. Imagine a president who reacted to a bombing in Times Square by saying: “The death of 100 Americans is a horrible tragedy. But the death of tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands is even worse. And that’s the toll terrorism could eventually take if we keep feeding the false narrative of jihadist recruiters who say that America is at war with Islam. So the ultimate answer isn’t more and more drone strikes. And we have to guard against the mistreatment of Muslims in America, ranging from playground bullying to heavy-handed, undiscerning surveillance. Justified though we are in feeling aggrieved and vengeful, natural though it is that we’d feel fear, let’s not let these feelings do the work of our enemies. Let’s not react to this tragedy the way terrorist recruiters want us to react. Let’s keep our wits about us.”

But I guess you can’t say that.

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Robert Wright is a fellow at the New America Foundation, editor in chief of, and the author most recently of The Evolution of God.

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