Fifteen years into the war on terror, and the United States inches closer to surrender. It is not that terrorists, whether al-Qaeda, ISIS or homegrown fanatics, have any chance of militarily defeating the United States. Militarily, the United States is invincible against the limited forces of terrorism. However, a relatively minor attack, in military comparisons, can disrupt our modern technological society in momentous ways. The economic and social interconnectedness of the modern world makes this relatively easy. The real power of the terrorist is not the destructiveness that terrorism brings, but the fear it creates in people. Terrorists are less interested in causing death or destruction than exploiting fear. Their targets are picked for maximum attention in a media-heavy world.
In a free society, the liberties of speech, association, belief, plus the right of fair trials, humane treatment and security of person are paramount. The Bill of Rights lays forth the boundaries that our government must not overstep. Those are the principles. In fact, those principles have been set aside many times throughout history. Today is no different.
Unfortunately, every terrorist attack eats at the Bill of Rights. It comes from the fear that resides in citizens who perceive that they may be the next victim. In reality, the chance of the average American being the victim of a terrorist attack isn’t much different from being crushed to death by furniture. While there is no movement afoot to save Americans from death by a sofa, there is plenty of discussion that some constitutional rights should be set aside or the core values of American tolerance should be dismissed.
The balance between freedom and security is what the terrorist seeks to upend. By creating fear, the terrorist creates the political pressure that a free society will set aside liberties for safety. In the end, the terrorist may be militarily defeated, but their agenda of disrupting the liberties of modern societies is achieved. The global media, with near instant reporting, has become an effective tool for the modern terrorist. The terrorist can cause disruption and receive massive coverage before anyone is absolutely certain which terrorist group was involved or if the catastrophe was a terrorist act.
As destructive as the 9/11 attacks were, $10-13 billion in direct property damages, the real damage was to the larger economy from canceled travel plans, lowered investment, enhanced private security, etc. Those costs exceeded $100 billion. If the ensuing American involvement in the Afghan and Iraq wars are considered, including the long-term medical costs to veterans, the 9/11 attacks probably cost the US about $3 trillion. This does not even begin to include the effect that increased airport security, the Patriot Act and other security related actions have had on American liberties. All this is the result of fear.
The last Republican Presidential debate is an example of how fear can cause Americans to consider surrendering their values. With the exception of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, most of his Republican opponents are ready to ignore the Constitution or international agreements that the US is a party.
During the debate, Donald Trump backed up a statement that he had made earlier in December:
“The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump said on Fox and Friends on Dec. 2, 2015. “They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”
“If you are going to kill the families of terrorists, realize that there’s something called the Geneva Convention we’re going to have to pull out of. It would defy every norm that is America.”
The United States has already defied international agreements this century. There is no doubt that waterboarding is a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the US is a signatory. The ICCPR forbids torture or any punishment that is inhumane, cruel or degrading.
From Hillary Clinton to the top Republican presidential contenders, all advocate for some degree of increased surveillance to combat terrorism. This is on top of current laws which allow in some instances accessing communication data without a warrant or make attaining one easier.
Earlier this year, the USA Freedom Act, essentially the Patriot Act’s successor, passed the senate 67-32 and was signed into law by President Obama. The new law doesn’t stop the much criticized snooping of telephone records by the National Security Agency. All it does is shift the burden of record keeping to the telecommunication companies and allows federal agencies to get warrants from a secretive anti-terrorism court, which almost always grants the warrants. This isn’t much different from the way police states operate, except that the American system keeps an ever-slackening leash on law enforcement agencies.
Fourteen years after the 9/11 attacks, the provisions for increased government surveillance remain in place. The argument that these were temporary provisions has long passed. The reality is that American society is moving to a permanent surveillance society. Even though there has not been another attack anywhere near the magnitude of 9/11, the possibility of another looms. If it comes, there will be calls for more surveillance or even worse. The idea of killing the families of non-combatants as a serious military strategy portends even scarier solutions for the future.
The United States has taken in only a few thousand Syrian refugees because of a process that slowly reviews refugees for terrorist connections. Yet, the atmosphere of fear has imposed severe restrictions on even that. This is true even though a refugee in an international camp has no idea where he or she may end up. Refugees are provided host countries randomly. They don’t request them. It is nearly impossible for ISIS to plant a terrorist in a refugee camp and guarantee that terrorist ending up in the US.
No level of decency is safe once fear overwhelms a voting population. For now, politicians are willing to target the families of terrorists in military operations, deny refuge for victims of war, torture terrorists or increase surveillance on Americans. However, the stakes are much higher than this. Another major terrorist attack can easily lead to an overreaction and further reduction in the Constitutional rights of Americans or discarding of other international treaties.
It is easy to see that the most serious inflictions upon American society are not coming from the terrorists themselves, but from our own overreaction. Somewhere, somehow, we must combat and defeat fear before it defeats us. In that, we need to pay special attention to a former President who once warned us of that very same thing. Now, more than ever, we need to contemplate the words that Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke in his inaugural address:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
We cannot defeat terrorism, until we stop being afraid.