The al-Qaeda attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, truly changed the United States, and not for the better. National pathologies and suppressed xenophobia have been unleashed as never before, fanned by the belligerent rhetoric coming out of Washington and from the U.S. media. As James Madison put it, "If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." That enemy has been terrorism.
It is arguable that nearly all the changes that have taken place in the United States over the past seven years have been driven by the fear of terrorism, which has been routinely exploited by politicians of both parties in pursuit of various objectives. As a result, today’s United States would be unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers. Americans now have to live with persistent government monitoring of their private lives, as exemplified by a huge and growing terrorist screening database that appears in various manifestations. The notorious no-fly list has a million entries, including more than 400,000 names of individuals, many of them U.S. citizens. The information on the list is secret and cannot be challenged.
And then there are the two versions of the PATRIOT Act and the Military Commissions Act, all of which combine to strip the liberties that Americans have traditionally enjoyed, including the right to associate freely, to be free from arbitrary detention or harassment, and to enjoy privacy in their personal affairs. The FBI has exploited its ability to investigate willy-nilly by issuing more than 30,000 National Security Letters annually, letters that compel the recipient to provide information on a target without any judicial oversight or due process. To those who argue that the government has not used its enhanced powers abusively to corrupt the judicial system, one need only point to the cases of José Padilla and Sami al-Arian, both of whom were detained without cause and held for years in extralegal limbo. Padilla may have been tortured to force him to confess. When the government was unable to convict him on terrorism charges, it was reduced to charging him with conspiracy and making its case based not on what he had actually said or done but on ludicrous testimony that he had been speaking in code-words to conceal his activities.
Overseas, the fear of terrorism has produced nothing but bad results. The United States has bullied friends and allies to enlist in a Manichean crusade to rid the world of terrorists. Some of the terrorists are more properly national liberation movements, like Hezbollah and Hamas, but Washington’s policy of one-size-fits-all means that there has been no attempt to divide and conquer through understanding that there are legitimate grievances and that all of the groups that the U.S. labels as terrorist are not the same. Fighting terrorism has been the justification of a series of disastrous wars, starting with Afghanistan and continuing with Iraq. It may yet result in a third and even a fourth war in Asia, against Iran and Syria, as some of the most persistent charges made against those countries by the U.S. government and media is that they are supporting terrorists.
Terrorism and terrorists were cited repeatedly in soundbites at both the Democratic and Republican conventions and by every candidate, but there never was any serious discussion of the problem of terrorism per se, so it probably would be useful at this point to look at a balance sheet on the issue. There has been no terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. That is surely somewhat due to improved border security and visa control that makes it more difficult for foreign terrorists to enter the country, but it might also be because there appears to be little sympathy for terrorist movements among Muslims living in the United States. There are many arrests on terrorism charges every year in the U.S., but most of the cases are budget-driven as there is a lot of money available to investigate "terrorists." It is also career-enhancing for a law enforcement officer to make a terrorist case arrest. Most of the arrests are, however, plea-bargained into immigration offenses or quietly dropped. The successful prosecutions have been ridiculous, in many cases aided and abetted by an "informant" inserted in the group who may have served as a catalyst for proposed terrorist activity. The FBI net has swept up pizza delivery men, landscapers, truck drivers, and the unemployed. Not a single alleged terrorist arrested and convicted in the United States has had the actual capability to carry out an act of terrorism.
In spite of the fact that there is little or no evidence of terrorists actually operating inside the U.S., the federal government is spending in the neighborhood of $100 billion per year in its war against terrorism. Considerable sums are also being spent by state and local governments and the private sector. If one assumes that there are something like 5,000 full-time terrorists scattered around the world, that works out to $40 million per terrorist per year from the federal government alone. Obviously, there is a lack of any kind of accountability in the process. That lack of efficiency is there by design, as the terrorism business keeps many people employed, both among the contractors who feed off the budgets and the bureaucrats who man the vast, new anti-terrorism infrastructure. As the terrorism threat in the United States at least appears to be hugely overstated, isn’t it time to cut those numbers down to size? Europe had a major terrorism problem in the 1970s and 1980s that was defeated by superior police and intelligence work backed up by a judicial system prepared to try suspects without any wholesale dismantling of civil liberties. Terrorists were treated as the criminals they were, arrested, and send to jail. More recently, the last terrorist groups in Europe, ETA and the IRA, have withered away and are on their last legs, all due to effective intelligence and police work. If there are terrorists in the United States, they should have been handled in the same way, not through the creation of a vast, ineffective, and enormously expensive bureaucracy that erodes the rights of every citizen.
And then there is the terrorism problem overseas, the grandiose "global war on terrorism," which the United States has undertaken as if the rest of the world had agreed that an international policeman was either desirable or necessary. U.S. heavyhandedness over the past seven years has created more terrorists than it has killed or captured, but many of the terrorists are no longer committed ideologues. Many resort to terror to resist the occupation of their countries while others seek revenge for the slaughter of family and friends in the numerous cases of collateral damage that have resulted from the U.S. industrialized military approach to defeat terrorism. Afghanistan is truly in danger of becoming a narco-state run by terrorists, but, Afghanistan aside, no country wants to have terrorists in their midst, and most have taken effective steps to deny them sanctuary and funding. This has forced terrorists to morph into national and local groups that no longer have the resources or reach of a central organization like al-Qaeda once had. The attacks in London and Madrid were carried out by local people using their own resources. This makes it more difficult to detect the terrorists as they are not reliant on money or associates from outside, but it also makes it possible to effectively deal with the problem locally on a case-by-case basis using law enforcement and judicial resources.
Hyping the fear of terrorism should be eliminated from our political discourse. Terrorism is undeniably a global problem, but it cannot destroy the United States unless we Americans do it to ourselves by overreacting to the threat. The terrorist menace has been grossly overstated for political reasons and because it is good business for the many entities that would have no other raison d’être. It is time to make terrorism go away. Constantly citing the terrorist problem empowers the terrorists by giving them free publicity and making them appear to be Third World Robin Hoods. It also is a distraction, making it more difficult to discern the simple and historically proven measures that can be taken to identify, arrest, and imprison terrorists as the criminals that they truly are.