keeping a democracy from overreacting to terrorism

(Chicago) In her book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, Louise Richardson warns against generalizing but still ventures a cautious generalization about terrorists. What they want, she writes, are “the three r’s” of revenge, renown, and reaction. They areĀ  strikingly vague about what kind of reaction they expect or what it will lead to (pp. 80-84). Bin Laden may have thought, for example, that the US would withdraw from the Middle East if he attacked us at home, or that we would invade the Arab world–but most likely he did not weigh that alternative or care which of the two outcomes occurred. What he wanted was a reaction of a large magnitude, something that would make him a significant player.

And that is precisely what he got in the form of the Afghanistan and Iraqi invasions. That does not (by itself) prove that those two interventions were bad for the world or for the US. They could have been good even if bin Laden had wanted them–for example, if our Afghan intervention had produced a stable, human-rights-protecting regime there. But it now looks as if both wars were bad, the costs too high for us and for the populations of both countries, the gains in human rights too evanescent. So then it appears that we gave bin Laden just what he wanted and did net harm as a result.

Richardson writes, “It was not quite true, therefore, that, in the words of President Bush, ‘September 11 changed our world.’ Rather, it was our reaction to September 11 that changed our world” (p. 167). That was true in big ways (two wars) and in subtler ways as well. For instance, enough Americans decided–wrongly–that it was unsafe to fly after September 11 that an additional 1,200 road fatalities occurred (p. 168).

The essential question is how a democratic government can avoid such an overreaction. In part, that’s easy. Very few US administrations would have invaded Iraq after 9/11–overturning a secularist Ba’ath regime in reaction to an attack by a fundamentalist movement based in an entirely different country. That was so stupid or venal that the probability of repetition is relatively low. But most administrations would have invaded Afghanistan, most Congresses would have passed the Patriot Act, and most free peoples would have curtailed flying and altered their behavior in many other irrational ways. I, for one, was not very happy flying in 2001-2002.

In a dictatorship, rulers can decide to shrug off a terrorist attack if that serves their interests. In a competitive democracy with a free press, the public typically demands a strong reaction. Imagine, for instance, that Al Gore had been president in 2000 and had chosen not to invade Afghanistan. We would be better off today, but no one would know that. Instead, Gore would be remembered as the weak president who was defeated in 2004 by the candidate who finally took us into Afghanistan.

Terrorism is a criminal offense that can be dealt with as such; it is not an existential threat to a country of our size and wealth. Terrorists are weak, and the biggest gift we can give them is to treat them as more powerful than they are. I don’t really expect these conclusions to prevail, especially in the face of another terrorist attack. But in the meantime, the best we can do is remind ourselves and others of these facts.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.