Letting Terrorism Fears Run Wild

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s arrest for the Boston Marathon bombing prompted calls from Sen. John McCain and three other Republican lawmakers to declare the 19-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen an enemy combatant, a reminder of how the politics of terrorism has distorted American principles, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The seemingly scripted national response to the Boston Marathon bombing continues. Over the past few days that response has included expressions of patriotism and community spirit that have included ovations for law enforcement officers and special observances at baseball games.

This is the lemonade-out-of-a-lemon positive side of responding to a lethal event. It is a reaching back to the larger but otherwise similar communal expressions after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with Americans now attempting to revive and relive the positive side of what they remember from the aftermath of that earlier tragedy.

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Defiance is one of the themes of the collective expressions. It was a theme of a rousing speech in which President Barack Obama talked about how the Boston Marathon would be held next year with people running harder than ever and cheering louder than ever. The message is that Americans will not let terrorists disrupt their lives.

But Americans have been letting terrorists, including the latest two, disrupt their lives a lot. Just think about the week-long saturation news coverage of this one story, and of all the work that wasn’t getting done and other matters not being tended to across the country as people followed the story.

Then late last week was the extraordinary happening of a major American city and several of its suburbs being locked down for a day. This greatly lengthened the tally sheet of the costs and consequences of one terrorist act and, more to the point, the response to it.

Possibly the lockdown offset some of the physical toll of the bombing in the form of fatal traffic accidents that did not occur and other violent crime that was not committed because the streets were empty. But the economic cost of shutting down a city full of businesses, though impossible to calculate with exactitude, was certainly very large.

All of this was done ostensibly for the purpose of tracking down a single, bleeding, 19-year-old fugitive suspect. It was a prudent assumption that this person would have had little compunction about killing again if he could have and thought he needed to kill to stay at large. But there also was little or no reason to believe that at the time he was being chased he posed more of a threat to public safety than the average garden-variety armed robber whom the Boston police probably deal with every week.

One can understand and even sympathize with public officials who order something like the lockdown. Given the enormous public attention to the case, if the suspect had evaded the dragnet there would have been a chorus of recriminations about how this was Tora Bora all over again. But note that we are talking here not about terrorism, or even about fear of terrorism, but instead about the politics of the fear of terrorism.

All of this brings to mind the observations of John Mueller, who has written most extensively about how American reactions or overreactions to terrorism have entailed costs that greatly exceed the costs of terrorism itself. Mueller has made many comparisons between terrorism and other sources of death and destruction to make his point about terrorism being an especially overblown threat.

It was if the fates wanted to punctuate that point that they also gave us last week an explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that killed significantly more people than the marathon bombers but received much less attention in the news media.

Americans have inflicted on themselves, especially over the past 11 ½ years, costs from their responses to terrorism that go far beyond all that lost business in Boston. One of the biggest indirect costs came from Americans becoming so fearful and angry that they allowed themselves to be bamboozled into supporting a war against a country that had nothing to do with what had made them fearful and angry.

There also have been severe, disgraceful departures from what otherwise would have been thought of as important legal and moral principles associated with the United States, involving especially the treatment and rights of detained persons. It is as if once anyone utters the T-word, many American minds go haywire and suddenly forget legality, morality and longstanding American values and jurisprudence.

And so we have Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte and Representative Peter King arguing that the suspect now recovering in a Massachusetts hospital should be handled as an “enemy combatant” rather than face justice in a criminal court. Why? Because of his Chechen ancestry?

He is a U.S. citizen accused of committing a crime in the United States. Based on what we know at the moment, there is no more reason to treat the Boston Marathon bomber as an “enemy combatant” than to treat the Boston Strangler that way.

Americans do not have to respond like this; such behavior is not part of our DNA. We faced far more frequently perpetrated terrorism in the United States in the 1970s than we have ever since without responding this way.

Perhaps some of the reasons for how the nation acted in the 1970s (including post-Watergate views of certain federal agencies) provided no more of a lasting basis for sound national policy than some of the reasons (including post-9/11 Islamophobia) for the responses we see today. But Americans have a long, long way to go before we can honestly say we are not letting terrorism disrupt our way of life.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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8 comments on “Letting Terrorism Fears Run Wild

  1. Don Bacon on said:

    All these senators focusing on the presumed thoughts of a nineteen-year-old is farcical.

    This teen, like all teens, doesn’t have a fully-developed brain so he is susceptible to outside influences, particularly from elders. (That’s why the military recruits teens.) So he’ll say “My brother made me do it,” or some such.

    Then there’s the strong possibility that even the stupid FBI had recruited the older brother . . .

    • I think maybe your brain is still soft. What do you mean the stupid fbi. These agencies exist for the protection of the citizens of the united states. Im glad we have them , and every other agency out there that puts itself in harms way for the people. These men and women have families to go home to at night. And if a bad guy gets hurt in the process, well he shouldnt have been doing whatever he was doing. I pray for all officials and law enforcement when this stuff happens and so should you. If you dont like these agencies and the speciality division s that are here for the safety of the us maybe you should move out of the US. :) what these young men did was evil and I hope this one lives to pay the price. If he doesnt, he will pay it in hell.

      • Don Bacon on said:

        What do I mean by stupid FBI.

        Despite the fact that the FBI has recruited most of the alleged domestic terrorists recently, and prosecuted them with set-up plots, which it may have done with these brothers, because the FBI has known about them for years, despite all the hoopla about requesting all those videos and photos, and supposedly still not being able to ID these brothers until they started shooting at cops, and one died, that’s the story line, despite all that, the FBI is selling the story that it is protecting us, and expects us to believe it? That’s stupid.

        pam, there is no heaven or hell. That’s another story.

      • HelenBossard on said:

        There is no proof that the two suspects did anything.
        Is the new rule now to convict first and try later? “Off with their heads!”

        You jump to conclusions before knowing the facts. You are a threat to this country, not the “suspects.”
        And praying won’t help to raise the IQ of any officials, or yours.

    • Frances in California on said:

      Who’s paying you, Pam? You watch too much “Numb3rs” . . . I like the show, myself, but then, I can tell the fantasy from reality. Just as not all cops are bad; not all cops are good, not all FBI are bad; not all FBI are good. All are subject to being “recruited” by the Criminal Oligarchy. Some don’t have the wit to withstand propaganda they are fed and cave to the rhetoric . . . as you seem to have.

  2. Bob Loblaw on said:

    The gang of four who supposedly want the perpetrator held as an enemy combatant would just as quickly condemn Obama for “taking” his rights if he had gone the enemy combatant route.

    After 911 Osama Bin Laden predicted that our American open way of life is over and a police state would replace it. Unfortunately he was closer to the truth than W’s “They hate us for our freedom”.

  3. HISTORICVS on said:

    I think Lincoln’s wise words from 1838 still apply:”At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

    At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

    I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”

  4. borat on said:

    The posts from these ostrichs in the sand belie my point: radical islam is the main threat to our civilization today.