Earlier this week, Fareed Zakaria offered an odd allegation that the US overreacted to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that killed almost 3,000 people. Zakaria claimed that al-Qaeda had basically overperformed and didn’t pose a threat necessary for the massive response it prompted. That analysis ignored several previous successful attacks abroad, including one on the USS Cole the year before 9/11, and the ongoing series of attacks around the world committed by AQ, Osama bin Laden, and their affiliates and allies.
In The New Republic, Reuel Marc Gerecht rebuts the charge of overreaction and compares the US response to European security changes, pronouncing our reaction as both prudent and cautious:
Now for the good news: I just peeked outside and we are emphatically not becoming a police state. We were not doing so under President George W. Bush and we are not doing so under President Barack Obama, who has left untouched most of his predecessor’s intelligence and counterterrorist programs and tactics (with the notable exception that Mr. Obama has been killing a lot more holy warriors with drones and attempting to capture and interrogate far fewer of them).
No doubt: Innocent Muslims find themselves caught in the net, but the truly grievous miscarriages of justice appear to have been relatively rare, especially given the scope of the threat that Al Qaeda and other jihadist organizations present. My former colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, Gary Schmitt, and I spent two years—2006 to 2008—visiting European internal-security and domestic-intelligence services. AEI has recently published a collection of essays—Safety, Liberty, and Islamist Terrorism—by Gary and European contributors that compares and contrasts American and European approaches to counterterrorism.
The conclusion: Contrary to received wisdom, Americans have been, if anything, more tentative and cautious in their approach to the jihadist threat than many of our European allies, who routinely use surveillance, administrative detention, and prosecutorial methods much more intrusive than those employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, our primary counterterrorist organization on the home front.
I’m quite certain that Mr. Zakaria might not approve of some of the things that France and Great Britain do (I don’t), but I doubt he’d depict either country as tilting over the edge of some dark abyss. In fact, even as France and Great Britain were gearing up their counterterrorist machinery after September 11 (the French didn’t have to do too much, as their own internal security organization, the DST, became well aware of what jihadists could do when terrorists tried to derail a high-speed train in 1995), their societies were becoming more open and liberal. Today, civil liberties are no more endangered among our two closest European allies, which also boast the two most effective Western counterterrorist systems, than they were before September 11.
The 9/11 attacks showed serious flaws in our commercial air travel and visa management systems. The radical Islamists behind 9/11 studied us well and exploited those openings to convert commercial airliners into guided missiles. The resulting security changes have made flying more tedious but much safer without infringing unnecessarily on privacy rights or on the effectiveness of air travel. Unfortunately, we still have not effectively addressed our visa system, despite promises from Congress since 9/11 to overhaul it and make it more accountable. It’s been five years since the 9/11 Commission rightly flagged this as a high priority for national security, and Congresses under the direction of both parties have done little to resolve the issue.
While Gerecht rejects Zakaria’s contention that we overreacted, he does have some objections to the strategies we employed — namely, the American approach of “going big” on security apparatuses. That, to0, came as a recommendation from the 9/11 Commission, and unfortunately Congress rushed to comply with it. Those big bureaucracies turned out to have the same flaws as what preceded them, a reality that got exposed in the wake of the almost-successful Christmas Day underwear-bomb attempt on a Northwest flight from Amsterdam. This time, the radical Islamists in Yemen in the al-Qaeda branch run by Anwar al-Awlaki got more lucky than skilled in getting a previously-flagged terrorist onto a flight bound for the US when miscommunications in the very bureaucracies that were supposed to end miscommunications failed to prevent his boarding the plane. We need a serious review of the changes made in 2005 and a fresh approach to streamlining the intelligence apparatuses and reducing the bureaucracy rather than adding two more levels of bureaucrats, as Congress did.
Even with those problems, we have improved our national security posture, inflicted serious damage on AQ and its networks, and given law enforcement and national security agencies the proper tools to fight the war without turning our country into a police state. As I wrote earlier, we now understand that this is the new normal, and that may be the most important part of maintaining our security in the long run. The US has not overreacted to AQ or the threat of radical Islamist terrorism (and other kinds of terrorism as well), but has maintained its national identity in the face of a serious and insidious threat unlike anything we had ever seen.