Strike a Balance by Weighing Threats


Feb 5, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in Baltimore Sun on February 5, 2006.

Recent revelations about U.S. domestic wiretapping have underscored the need to reflect on the impact that the global war on terror is having on American society. If the war is to last for many years or even decades, what long-term changes are we prepared to accept in terms of limits on civil liberties and other things we value, such as the Constitution's checks on executive power?

What we need is a triage of terrorism — separating the threats that are most important from the ones that are less so. Otherwise, we risk ceding to the terrorists the ability to decide how we live our lives. Osama bin Laden and his henchmen will be able to make us jump any time they want, as he did recently with a new "threat tape" released to the media. And if each time he does so we give up a bit more freedom, he wins.

We need to take a fresh look at terrorism — not as a single, encompassing phenomenon, but in terms of different kinds of threats to the United States and our friends and allies. What is the likely occurrence of any particular terrorist act? How much damage could it do, psychologically as well as physically? What kinds of terrorism are more serious than others?

And how do we measure the benefits of seeking to insulate ourselves from the last possible vestige of terrorism compared with limits on our freedoms or our acting in ways that, in normal times, we would view as repugnant?

A triage of terrorism — setting priorities — would help us decide what responses are appropriate, what tools to use and how to keep terrorists from defining the field of battle. If we foster a sense of undifferentiated, constant fear, it could lead us to lose perspective, abandon cogent analysis and throw out freedom's baby with the terrorist bathwater. Defend against weapons of mass destruction no matter what it takes? Absolutely. Against a lone terrorist? A very different judgment.

In September 2001, no one had a clear sense of the scope or the extent of the threat that al-Qaida and others posed to the United States. Uncertainty was compounded by the unusual means of attack — "manned cruise missiles" in the form of four jetliners.

Uncertainty was also compounded by a lack of clarity about the attackers, their bases of operation or the best means of countering them. And there was nothing the United States had done to provoke such wrath and destruction, adding to our sense of bewilderment.

The enormity of what was done to us galvanized the government and the nation and led us to cede added powers to the executive branch. Overthrowing the Taliban and occupying Afghanistan was one response. A second was forging counterterror links of cooperation with other countries in intelligence sharing, police work and military action. A third was creating a new and important line of domestic security: homeland defense.

But one thing we did not do was differentiate clearly among different qualities and quantities of threat. Whether the specific threat could be a weapon of mass destruction or a handful of suicide bombers, we generally saw "terrorism" to be a single and encompassing phenomenon, to be fought with equal intensity whatever the relative risk to the nation. Psychologically, this was understandable; in terms of devising means to counter the use of terror, it does not help us maximize our overall security as a nation.

One goal of the 9/11 terrorists was clearly to cause significant damage to the U.S. economy by striking the World Trade Center, a nerve center of global finance. Directly, that did not happen, in large part because private firms had taken precautions against unknown risks through redundancy in recordkeeping. Economic impact was indirect, as fear of flying increased and the airline industry suffered for a while.

Another goal was to provoke massive U.S. attacks on Muslims, at home and abroad, as a spur to terrorist recruiting and polarization of the Western and Islamic worlds. That also did not happen, certainly not to the degree bin Laden and others hoped. President Bush and other Americans honored the Muslim faith and its adherents, while the U.S. military went to unprecedented lengths to minimize civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The war in Iraq did work in the opposite direction, but the United States still has made efforts to separate religious expression from extremism.

A third goal of the terrorists was to get the United States to damage itself from within by trammeling civil liberties and weakening democracy. On this, the jury is still out. The bad news is that we have gone some way to achieving the terrorists' ambition. The good news is that, as so often in our history, Americans are waking up to the risk before it is too late.

This is not to say that fear for the nation's security should never be put ahead of strict adherence to civil liberties or concern for the nation's reputation for adherence to the rule of law. It is, rather, to ask: Who decides? On what basis? And to revalidate the very basis of American government and democracy: the premise that no one has a monopoly on wisdom.

Different viewpoints and interests can be valid, and the best means of sorting them out is not for government to cite the catch-all phrase "terrorism" as justification for what it wants to do, but rather to invest more confidence in public analysis and debate.

Robert E. Hunter, a senior adviser at the Rand Corp., was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 1993 to 1998. His e-mail is

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