Five Years After 9/11

True Grit

To Counter Terror, We Must Conquer Our Own Fear

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By Brian Michael Jenkins

A member of the U.S. Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War, Brian Jenkins is often described as the dean of America’s terrorism researchers. This article is drawn from his new book, Unconquerable Nation: Knowing Our Enemy, Strengthening Ourselves. Jenkins is a senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation.

We Americans and our allies have made undeniable progress in reducing al Qaeda’s operational capabilities since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but we have neither dented the determination of the jihadists nor blunted the appeal of al Qaeda’s ideology. Its leaders, although in hiding, communicate frequently. Their message continues to inspire angry young men to prepare and carry out violent attacks on civilian populations. The terrorist threat is more dispersed but still lethal. The insurgency continues in Iraq. The fighting has intensified in Afghanistan. Radicalization continues worldwide. This will be a long conflict. It will require a sustainable strategy. It will require psychological strength as well as physical strength.

We in America have spent the past five years scaring the hell out of ourselves.

At home, we in America have spent the past five years scaring the hell out of ourselves. Terrorism is either violence or the threat of violence calculated to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm. As we have seen, terrorism often works. Unfortunately, the unceasing public discussion of America’s vulnerabilities, the alarming alerts that followed 9/11, the proliferation of barricades and bollards, and the media reports of government officials holed up at secret sites have all added to the national anxiety.

New York artist Alan Streets, depicting a city where alert levels rarely dropped in the years after 9/11, captures an unbalanced mood on Aug. 3, 2004.


New York artist Alan Streets, depicting a city where alert levels rarely dropped in the years after 9/11, captures an unbalanced mood on Aug. 3, 2004. The artist positioned his canvas beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, a site long considered a prime target for terrorists.

Instead of puncturing the terror by educating and engaging the public in its own preparedness and response, Washington consigned citizens to the role of helpless and frightened passengers while it went after the bad guys. What else but fear can explain the readiness of Americans to tolerate tossing aside the very Geneva Convention agreements the United States had fought to implement? What else but fear could have led Americans to even entertain public arguments in favor of torture and against any restrictions on how we might treat those in custody?

There has always been an alternative, a strategy more consistent with American tradition — a strategy aimed at reducing public fear through a different style of communication and governance and at more actively engaging citizens in their own preparedness and response. Such an approach, if adopted, would attack the terror, not just the terrorists. It would see the White House working closely with the legislative and judicial branches to increase security without trespassing on liberty. It would aim at preserving national unity. In sum, it would be a strategy that seeks lasting strength.

There is much concerning the conduct of the war on terror with which I agree: the muscular initial response to 9/11, the removal of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the relentless pursuit of al Qaeda’s leaders and planners, the increasingly sophisticated approach to homeland security, and, although I have deep reservations about the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush’s determination to avoid an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal.

The list of things with which I do not agree is longer. These aspects of the war on terror have, if anything, undermined our campaign: the needless bravado, the arrogant attitude toward essential allies, the exploitation of fear, the exaggerated claims of progress, the persistence of a wanted-poster approach while the broader ideological struggle is ignored, the rush to invade Iraq, the failure to deploy sufficient troops there despite the advice of senior military leaders and the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the cavalier dismissal of treaties governing the conduct of war, the mistreatment of prisoners, the unimaginable public defense of torture, the use of homeland security funding for political pork barrel spending, and the failure to educate and involve citizens.

The focus must return to the destruction of the jihadist enterprise.

I am not attempting to serve any political agenda. My sole objective is to reckon how America can defeat its terrorist foes while preserving its own liberty. Throughout the Cold War, Americans maintained a rough consensus on defense matters, despite substantive disagreements. Unity did not require the suspension of honest differences or of civilized political debate.

But today’s fierce partisanship has reduced national politics to a gang war. The constant maneuvering for narrow political advantage, the rejection of criticism as disloyalty, the pursuit by interest groups of their own exclusive agendas, and the radio, television, newspaper, and Internet debates that thrive on provocation and partisan zeal provide a poor platform for the difficult and sustained effort that America faces. All of these trends imperil the sense of community required to withstand the struggle ahead. We don’t need unanimity. We do need unity. Democracy is our strength. Partisanship is our weakness.

The recasting of counterterrorism as “war” immediately following 9/11 was a good idea, but the ensuing “Global War on Terror” has conflated too many threats and lumped together too many missions. The focus must return to the destruction of the jihadist enterprise.

In addition, homeland security must move beyond gates and guards and become the impetus for rebuilding America’s decaying infrastructure. We need to adopt a realistic approach to risk and become a lot more sophisticated about security. Instead of stoking fear, we need to build upon American traditions of determination and self-reliance — and begin firing up citizen participation in emergency preparedness and response.

Next section: Facing the Foe Without
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