Amid all of the television news specials, turgid essays and grim pictorials we have seen on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks – there have been a few encouraging glimpses of sanity. Several commentators have pointed out that Osama Bin Laden got exactly what he wanted when America reacted to that tragedy by spending trillions on military assaults, which ended up killing unknown thousands of innocent Muslims – also known as “collateral damage”.
How many otherwise peace-loving Muslims will be attracted to Islamist extremism because of outrage over a “war on terror” they perceive as a “war on Islam”? How badly has our economy been damaged because a military invasion of Iraq was sold as an effective way to prevent another 9/11?
Another tragic change Bin Laden brought to America was the inflammation of a pre-existing National Security Gestapo, which had always been hell-bent on having its way – individual freedom and privacy be damned! We have witnessed how Barack Obama has been more than happy to accommodate those forces – many of which are private contractors – deliberately placed out of the reach of that pesky Freedom of Information Act.
How did we get to this deteriorated situation? The mass media bear a large share of the responsibility. Their need to out-sensationalize the competition helped fuel a consensual mindset, ginned-up with rage and ready to support whatever junta could strike back at our enemy with unrestrained force. We were told that this enemy was terrorism itself – a tactic. Our government had declared war against a tactic. Anyone who questioned that battle was characterized as weak or unpatriotic.
It is only now – ten years after the tragedy – when people are willing to take a rational look at how our political leaders and our media establishment reacted to (or took advantage of) these events.
Spencer Ackerman wrote an article for Wired with the title, “How to Defeat Terrorism: Refuse to Be Terrorized”. In the political world, the refusal to be terrorized requires the courage to stand up to intimidation and accusations of being “weak on terror”. In fact, our political leaders have been rendered weak from terror. That weakness has resulted in significant deterioration of our personal liberties as well as capitulation to those lobbyists and pressure groups demanding unlimited expenditures in the name of “homeland security”. Spencer Ackerman provided this explanation:
Look at the charts that Danger Room’s Lena Groeger compiled. She tallies $6.6 trillion in defense spending after 9/11. There is nothing that al-Qaida could possibly do to justify even a slice of such a monster expenditure. Why did it happen?
Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke has an answer. “There’s going to be a terrorist strike some day,” Clarke told Frontline for its “Top Secret America” documentary this week. “And when there is, if you’ve reduced the terrorism budget, the other party, whoever the other party is at the time, is going to say that you were responsible for the terrorist strike because you cut back the budget. And so it’s a very, very risky thing to do.”
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It’s much harder to be the one to stand up and say the threat of terrorism is too minor for such expanded surveillance, and the government needs to stop. When libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) made precisely that case, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) subjected him to cheap, hypocritical demagoguery.
The only way this changes is if citizens change the political incentives for politicians. Two-bit terrorists will always be around, sadly. But when the Harry Reids get major political blow-back for attacking the Rand Pauls, then – and only then – will the 9/11 Era be truly over.
Another important theme of Ackerman’s essay is the absence of an “end game” for this war on terror. After conceding that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta may be entirely justified in claiming that al-Qaida is on the verge of strategic collapse, Ackerman emphasizes that “it would be foolish” to relent at this point:
But all of that is only justifiable if the new U.S. Shadow Wars – undeclared, largely covert wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and beyond – actually end soon.
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When Barack Obama ran for president, his national security team told me, in an extensive series of interviews, that a major focus of his presidency would be to confront what they called the “politics of fear” – the national-security freakout that led to counterproductive post-9/11 moves like invading Iraq. But since coming to power, Obama has accommodated himself to the politics of fear far more than he’s confronted it.
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Only when citizens make it acceptable for politicians to recognize that the threat of terrorism isn’t so significant can the country finally get what it really needs, 10 years later: closure.
President Obama created a new challenge for himself: By killing off Bogeyman Bin Laden and with the imminent destruction of the world’s largest terrorist organization, he is now faced with the duty to lead America out of this dark age of terrorphobia.