Here at Winning Progressive, our hope is that the death of Bin Laden can enable us to finally stop overemphasizing the threat posed by terrorism and to rationalize our response to the level and type of threat that does exist.
Yes, terrorism is a horrible and evil act the perpetrators of which should be brought to justice swiftly. But terrorism has never been a “fatal disease.” Of course, terrorism is fatal to individuals, but it has never posed anything close to a fatal threat to our nation. There has never been a possibility that a group of criminal living in caves in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a few other nations could destroy our country or even undermine us in any significant way. In fact, the latest “attack” that these terrorists managed to pull off lead to nothing more than the terrorist lighting his underwear on fire.
Terrorists cannot bring a society like ours down by carrying out attacks that kill people, but they can fundamentally change our society if we let them. The way terrorists can have a significant impact on our country is if we allow it to by overreacting. For example, terrorism can lead us to undermine our civil liberties, spend resources we don’t have, and take a far more belligerent foreign policy than is appropriate. Since the September 11 attacks, we have engaged in each of those things as part of the ever increasing security state that we have built in the U.S. In fact, according to a Washington Post investigation, there are now 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, and we spend more than $71 billion per year on homeland security.
Now would be a perfect time to rationalize our response to terrorism. We should devote rational levels of resources toward infiltrating and undermining terrorist cells, eliminating terrorist havens, and protecting the American public from terrorist attacks. But we should also keep in mind the relative danger posed by terrorism versus numerous other things (such as gun violence, car accidents, or air pollution) that cause far more deaths and are more within our control, and calibrate the extent of our responses to these various threats according to the size of the threat, our ability to control it, and the impacts that doing so would have on our way of life.
Bringing Bin Laden to justice struck a major blow against Al-Qaeda and other terrorists throughout the world. The way to strike another blow is to stop overreacting and over-inflating the terrorist threat that we face.
For a deeper explanation of the value of rationalizing our response to terrorism, I’d recommend James Fallow’s excellent essay in The Atlantic entitled Declaring Victory.