After 9/11, are we in danger of defeating ourselves?

Every year since 9/11, we grieve for the those who died, and honor the heroes among us who responded that day and who have defended us every day since. This is as it should be. But every Sept. 11 is also an opportunity to take stock of where we stand, and whether we have met the challenges the terrorists have placed before us.

The record, unfortunately, is mixed. Our armed forces have answered the call and demonstrated unparalleled martial - and civic - virtue both at home and on battlefields far from the United States. But have Americans, as a society, faced down the threat from terrorism, or have we surrendered to it, perhaps in ways we don't even understand?

The terrorists who attacked us at the turn of the 21st century did not think they would defeat us by force. Instead, their goal was to bait us into defeating ourselves: They hoped that we would overreact, abandon our values and lash out in ways that would make the rest of the world turn against us. They have succeeded more than we might like to admit.


Yes, Osama bin Laden and his minions made some key miscalculations, to be sure. Like so many defeated enemies in the past, they fatally underestimated the United States and the determination we would exhibit in hunting them down and destroying their organizations. If the terrorist goal, however, was to force us to change our way of life and to abandon some of the core beliefs that make us Americans, then their efforts have had at least some of their intended effect.

First and foremost, we remain obsessed with terrorism far out of proportion to the actual threat, even to the point of irrationality. People who do not think twice about texting while driving are terrified of being caught in the next 9/11. Driven by their own ignorance of statistics, preyed on by opportunistic politicians and transfixed by live images from terrorist attacks around the world, American citizens have abandoned the courage and self-confidence that made us a great nation, and instead cheer on pointless, mostly symbolic "Muslim bans" against countries that produced exactly none of the attackers of 2001.

Likewise, we have mortgaged our privacy, no small number of our civil rights, and even the precious hours of our daily lives to laws and regulations and travel rituals meant to protect us from the smallest chance of terrorist harm, all while ignoring the material and psychological price of such policies. We rail against "the government" for inflicting these indignities on us, but our elected representatives and our security services are doing exactly what we've told them to do: to protect us at all costs.

Speaking of costs, we're also spending money. Lots of it. In the rush to "do something," we created an entirely new department (and gave it the creepy name of "Homeland Security" that wouldn't have sounded out of place in communist-era Eastern Europe), and we now spend billions upon billions of dollars in maintaining a new national security state that dwarfs the one we created to handle the existential threat aimed at us during the Cold War. The glittering skylines in once-sleepy suburban neighborhoods around Washington are the artifacts of nearly two decades of a single-minded focus on national security to the exclusion of many other priorities.

Of course, we haven't experienced a second 9/11, nor have our Western allies, despite the ghastly attacks on civilians in cities such as London, Paris and Madrid. (Ironically, the one nation to suffer grievous mass casualty attacks since 9/11, including synchronized airliner bombings, has been the authoritarian security state of Vladimir Putin's Russia.) To some extent, this is testimony to the effectiveness of our intelligence, police and defense organizations. We will likely never know how many plots were secretly scotched by our soldiers, spies and detectives, and for this, we should be grateful.

But we are buying all of this at a very high a cost in money spent and wasted, in lives risked and lost - and in principles compromised or even abandoned. The reality is that we will almost certainly suffer more terrorist attacks by smaller groups or individuals, no matter how childishly we insist on perfect security. There is no such thing as absolute security, and we must stop looking for magical solutions, in which one war or one military victory brings all of this to an end. The battle against terrorists and the Islamic extremists who send them against us is going to be a long struggle, just as the fight against communist totalitarians was during the Cold War.

Accordingly, we must stop asking when it will be over. A mature society needs to realize, and to accept, that this fight may not be "over" in our lifetimes. We should instead scale back our unreasonable expectations of security, and return to a stoic and measured concentration on the daily fight, all the while living our lives and holding firm to our ideals as a Western, tolerant, open society. Those Western principles are what made us a target in the first place. If we surrender them in order to fight our enemies on their preferred terms, we are doing their work for them.

Thomas M. Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and an adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School. His latest book is "The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters." Follow him on Twitter @RadioFreeTom. The views expressed are his own.

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