Terrorism is theater, a divisive political tool used to invoke fear through the grisly spectacle of violence and death. Events like 9/11 are designed to put burning steel and bodies on display, to transform safe spaces into fearsome grotesqueries. But what was lost then was more than just lives and livelihood (although those costs were profound) – the American people lost their sense of security.
In a misguided pursuit to reclaim this sense of security, the United States embarked on two costly foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while creating a shockingly empowered and bloated military-industrial complex. As of 2011, the global War on Terror boasted a staggering price tag of $5 trillion (USD). This is the equivalent of giving every US citizen $16,000 each. From 2000 to 2014, the Department of Defense (DoD) alone benefited from a $117.3 billion budget increase.
But the truth no one wants to admit is that the current model of hyper-securitization is untenable.
Advocates of the War on Terror argue that the ubiquitous nature of terrorist threats demands an empowered and expansive national security apparatus. But the creation of the Department of Homeland Security did not stop terrorist attacks on US soil. It was only due to flawed design and poor execution that the Detroit underwear bomber plot failed. The bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, passed TSA’s “rigorous” security with explosives strapped to his crotch, highlighting the inefficacy of post-9/11 security measures. Similarly, despite unprecedented funds and powers, a secret 2005 FBI report woefully confessed the bureau was unable to identify a single al-Qaeda operative in the United States. Likewise, the aerial strikes abroad on ISIS, the new face of terror, are a superficial band-aid – more political posturing than meaningful strategic action.
So has the trillion-dollar national security budget improved security for the average American?
The hard truth is that America, as a society and as a nation, has allowed its policies and security to be dictated by terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. Fear has become the baseline and terrorism is a constant, vivid threat. The fear lives in the shows we watch, dominates conversations of policy, and hinders the country’s ability to make rational security decisions.
Statistically, terrorism poses very little threat to the average American. In 2011, of the 13,288 people killed by terrorist attacks globally, seventeen were private US citizens, or 0.001 percent. In contrast, according to the FBI, the United States recorded 1,134,527 incidents of violent crime in 2011. More people die by lightning strikes annually, with 26 deaths in 2011, than from terrorism.
The notion of absolute security is a costly illusion. Dangers abound in the world from criminals to hurricanes. Nevertheless, the existence of danger does not and should not stop society from functioning. For instance, any resident of Miami, Florida understands that a hurricane on any given year could potentially lift his or her house and place it in a different zip code. Similarly, societies must accept the fact that states cannot stop every act of terrorism. Things can always slip through the net – even a $5 trillion net. Instead, the state should invest in infrastructure to rebound from terrorism such as rapidly deployable crisis teams or economic relief programs for victims and their families. The past has highlighted that government ineptitude in responding swiftly and efficiently to a crisis can hugely exacerbate human suffering. The litany of government failure to react efficiently to crisis abounds: Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and the 2008 financial crisis.
Although the doors of the CIA should not be closed forever, the current model of security has passed the point of diminishing returns. In 2001, al-Qaeda orchestrated a singular terrorist attack on US soil on 9/11 from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Now, in 2014, al-Qaeda has affiliates in a dozen countries from Tunisia to Pakistan with a growing popular base. ISIS, al-Qaeda’s former affiliate turned rival, controls large swathes of territory throughout Syria and Iraq. Whether in the US, UK, or Israel, the creation of expensive anti-terrorist programs has yet to yield greater security for anyone. Instead, the ballooning defense budget and expanding War on Terror has only intensified insecurity in the world, playing into narratives of the global jihad of radical Islam and terrorism.
National security apparatuses around the world need to be nimble, creative, and flexible to the evolving threats of the 21st century. Instead of gathering and storing a mountain of data in the current broad net approach, agencies must be more selective and precise in intelligence gathering. Similarly, the military must prepare soldiers for the asymmetrical threats they are increasingly asked to face. Historically, militaries are caught fighting the last war, using outdated tactics to address new threats – the French fought WWII like WWI and the US fought the Iraqi insurgency like Vietnam. The national security apparatus has to be a surgical scalpel instead of an unwieldy and expensive sledgehammer. The past decade’s campaign of controversial drone strikes, expensive nation-building, and fear mongering has not produced security. Adaptability in capabilities and flexibility in strategy will prove the key to future success and security, not the dollar amount assigned to the defense budget.
In the end, as a society, we must come to accept that acts of terror will occur. If we don’t, we will be weighed down by an endlessly expanding list of threats. Any parent understands that you can’t protect your children from everything. You can only prepare them for the moment when the inevitable challenge comes.
We should never forget the tragedy of 9/11, nor the victims of any act of terrorism, but we must not live in fear or export our fear out into the world. Fear mongering is a predatory political tactic, yet completely ineffective in producing sustainable security.
Photos are public domain