Today, our government is clearly far more alert to the nature of the terrorist threat than it was before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But, is America also far safer today? Marginally we may be, but there have been costs.
There are five reasons why we are not that much safer.
First, American policymakers are not the only ones whose knowledge of their enemies has grown appreciably over the past decade — those terrorists bent on harming America have also learned a great deal since 9/11. They are far smarter today, both strategically and tactically, and therefore in many ways they are harder to oppose.
Second, one of America’s enduring strengths is its comparatively open system of democratic government. This is also one of America’s greatest instrumental weaknesses in opposing terrorism.
We openly discuss and debate our security strengths and weaknesses, which serves, importantly, to educate both policymakers and the public about our preparedness, or the lack thereof. But it also serves to advertise America’s specific vulnerabilities.
Third, we still have not decided what our foreign policy should be — interventionist? multilateralist? isolationist? non-interventionist? liberal imperialist? principled incrementalist? — or how foreign policy helps or hinders the counterterrorism effort.
Neither President Obama’s indecisive internationalism nor his predecessor’s neo-conservatism enjoy anything approaching majority support, in part because neither has shown himself to be capable of reducing either the terrorist threat emanating from specific fundamentalist Islamic groups or the anti-Americanism pervasive throughout the radical Muslim world.
Fourth, following the political establishment’s post-9/11 rush to spend — both in blood and treasure — its way out of the terrorism problem, it is now coming face to face with one of policymaking’s oldest truths: More taxpayer money, more government programs, more government employees and more government buildings do not necessarily equate to better policy outcomes.
Rather, the $1 trillion War on Terror, largely designed and choreographed by conservative-minded foreign policy and national security hawks, is subject to the very same weaknesses that have plagued and continue to plague other domestic “wars” designed by both liberals and conservatives, from the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs.
Despite their authors’ very best intentions, such Big Government programs are astronomically expensive and relatively (often absolutely) ineffective: They produce perverse incentives and unintended negative consequences, and they are inherently wasteful and corrupting, both socially and politically.
Fifth, we have not determined the proper balance between security and civil liberty.
This inherent trade-off between order and freedom oscillates back and forth, according to the latest scare or threat alert, rather than residing in a state of equilibrium that recognizes the primacy of individual liberties while according law enforcement sufficient power to effectively protect the population within the constraints of a liberal constitution that, it is worth remembering, has weathered many security crises.
The fact that today Americans are a little safer has nonetheless come at a significant price, both economic and political. A modest improvement in security has been paid for with a tangible reduction in civil liberties.
The lasting impact is a new normal of intrusion: a sacrifice of some privacy and some civil liberties, such as warrantless eavesdropping on American citizens within U.S. borders, and in some cases the sacrifice of individuals’ personal dignity, such as TSA-conducted pat-downs and virtual strip searches in airports, in the name of national security.
October 2001’s new anti-terrorism legislation was multifaceted, and most reasonable people could agree upon some aspects of it as both necessary and overdue, while other aspects clearly threatened to tread, and at times trample, upon the citizenry’s most fundamental rights.
A decade later, while the Patriot Act undeniably strengthened law enforcement, it consciously tore down many of the protective walls constructed between domestic law enforcement and overseas intelligence gathering — walls designed to protect American citizens from being spied upon by their own government, particularly those protections designed to protect the presumption of innocence.
Particularly important to the long-term health of American liberal democracy is the fact that the actual end (if one is to be found) of the terrorism threat is no guarantor that the contemporary imbalance between security and liberty will be corrected. History tells us that oppressive measures introduced during crises are rarely removed when normal programming is resumed.
Basham directs The Democracy Institute and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar.