About a year ago, The Atlantic Monthly published a provocative essay by James Fallows about the War on Terror. Fallows argued, quite convincingly, that U.S. interests would be best served by declaring the War on Terror over; Fallows also pointed out that terrorist networks had for the most part lost their ability to coordinate large-scale 9/11–type attacks and that it was time to move into the second, much longer, phase of the War on Terror. That is not to say that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism would cease to exist—it is a reality of the future—but rather that fighting such forms of terrorism under the guise of a universal War on Terror is counterproductive.
It doesn’t take an editor of the Atlantic to show you why. First, referring to Islamic fundamentalism does very little to further the cause of actually rooting it out. It is not as if the populace is any more or less amenable to exorbitant defense expenditures or diplomatic maneuvers when you couch this struggle in terms of a war. Second, a war only exploits the domestic anxieties that help, rather than hinder, terrorists. Third, a universal war pits us against countries with which we could otherwise align.
But if there is such a clear-cut case for taking the War on Terror underground, why haven’t we?
Well, in large part, the main obstacle is the government itself. Rhetorically, putting things in terms of a grand war might be appealing to a scared public in the short run. But I don’t mean to pin all the blame on Bush here; he has even admitted that we will probably never “win” the War on Terror. In fact, many of the worst abusers of the public’s psyche have been people unaffiliated with Bush.
My favorite example hearkens back to the early days of the War on Terror, when Vincente Padilla was captured at O’Hare Airport. Padilla was a low-level al Qaeda operative who had absurdly preliminary plans to attack an American site with a “dirty bomb.” When the Justice Department caught wind of this, John Ashcroft (who was never even close to Bush’s inner circle and represented the old wing of social conservatism, not the robust executive branch people who supported the NSA wiretapping program and other more ridiculous Bush ideas) lost his marbles. He held a press conference in which Padilla was suddenly a top al Qaeda operative and a dirty bomb was just a step below a nuke. Tell me, how on earth is this sort of boasting productive?
But this wasn’t an isolated incident. In fact, just last week, when authorities thwarted a plan to attack the New Jersey Army base, Fort Dix, United States attorney Chris Christie was quick to incite some terror of his own, referring to the plan as an act of terror and equating the plan with prior instances of Islamic terrorism.
Now, I’m not quite sure how an attack on U.S. armed forces counts as any form of terrorism I’ve ever heard of (maybe it would terrorize the troops), but what good does it do to frame these would-be attackers in terms of the global war on terror? Clearly it was an incident involving amateurs with no tangible relation to al Qaeda or other prominent international jihadists.
So why does this keep happening? For one, our politicians love talking about how great they are, and the bigger the plot averted, the more accolades they must deserve. But the more fundamental issue is that this is the natural inclination of politicians and law enforcement operatives.
Catching a criminal before the act (or even after) is a sign of the power of the government. And it is not a bad sign to broadcast, since upping the likelihood of capture for would-be criminals helps deter future crime. But that dichotomy isn’t terribly applicable to terrorists who frequently don’t plan to live past the execution of their attacks.
So we are left with a political structure in which the terrorists win either way. When those given the task of stopping terrorists end up winning, we are constantly reminded of how close we came to disaster, and when the terrorists aren’t caught, well, the results are pretty obvious.
I’m honestly not sure how to stop this cycle, but last week’s response to the averted Fort Dix attack clearly shows that President Bush declaring the War on Terror over would not be enough. Fallows definitely had a good idea when he called for the second phase of the War on Terror, but there needs to be more fundamental change in nearly all levels of government before we can get to that point.