Four claims one hears a good deal these days concerning the wars on terror are not exactly wrong but need some unpacking to render them truly valuable. Without a bit of analysis, these claims encourage the intellectual complacency that has marred much of the public debate about these wars and fortify the self-confidence of a certain kind of critic who believes that anyone who demurs in the face of such allegedly clinching claims is willfully ignoring the obvious.
The first of these claims is the argument that because complete security from terrorism is not achievable, compromising the customary practices of our liberal democracy will not make us significantly safer. After all, even persons living in rigid, highly regulated authoritarian societies have been attacked. Of course total security — the assurance that no malicious person will ever threaten an American community as, for example, the Washington, D.C., snipers of 2002 did for three weeks — is not possible. We have 300 million people and more than 100,000 miles of frontier, a dozen cities with populations exceeding or approaching 1 million people, more than 100 cities with concentrations exceeding 11,000 people per square mile, and literally hundreds of millions of rifles and small arms in private hands, along with the wherewithal to manufacture explosives easily available at most hardware stores and the expertise accessible on the Web. It would be absurd to think that we can avoid a committed network of terrorists when we cannot even pacify local neighborhoods, or protect our police, or in some egregious cases, protect our people from the police.
But what does this vulnerability to modern violence imply? That there are no steps a liberal democracy can take that will improve its chances of defeating terrorist networks or mitigate the effects of their plots? The fact that Russia also gets attacked by terrorists is really a non sequitur unless anyone is proposing that a wholesale constitutional revolution is necessary to protect our citizens. A better observation might be that if a liberal democracy cannot protect its people, there will be increasing demands for greater authorities to be given to the security services.
The second often-heard claim is that terrorists don't pose an "existential" threat. This use of the term existential to mean "that which threatens the very existence of a society" is relatively novel in our language. I suppose that equates with the metric once used to mark the "assured destruction" of a country: the elimination of half of its population and two-thirds of its industrial capacity. By this standard it is inconceivable that today's networked terrorists could pose such a threat to the United States or even to the much smaller and more densely populated states.
This is not how the word "existential" was used when I was a philosophy student going to Walter Kaufmann's lectures. Existentialism was a congeries of attitudes most vividly expressed by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the 19th century and Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre in the 20th. Although its adherents resisted definition, one might not too unfairly say that existentialism was a reaction to both empiricism and rationalism, holding that man's nature could never be precisely detailed, inductively or deductively, because human beings were in a constant state of becoming. As Sartre wrote, "Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism."
The wars on terror may yet prove to be a defining crucible for the first part of the 21st century.
From that perspective, global networked terrorism does pose an existential threat insofar as it threatens to distort our freedom of action, making us believe that we are not responsible for our acts (because we are constrained by terror) and changing the relationships among human beings through the omnipresence of fear. For the existentialist, however, every danger is also an occasion for taking responsibility for how one reacts. The wars on terror may yet prove to be a defining crucible for the first part of the 21st century.
But that awful possibility leads some to the third cliche: If we significantly modify our behavior, the terrorists win. What if only by modifying our behavior — say by changing our force structure or giving greater latitude to artificial intelligence in the collation of information, or creating an American MI5 separating intelligence collection from law enforcement in the FBI — could we prevent the victories of our enemies? And what does it mean to "win" a war on terror? On this analysis, it simply means not changing your behavior, which would exalt maladaptive habits into a strategy. But if winning a war is the achievement of the war aim, and the war aim is the protection of civilians — like the civilians killed in New York or Paris or Brussels or London — then it would seem that only by changing our behavior can we expect to protect more civilians than we would otherwise have lost to terrorist attacks.
Finally there is the reassuring bromide that terrorists cannot defeat us, we can only defeat ourselves. I suppose, barring a Carthaginian defeat by annihilation — as happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki — this is always true. Were we defeated in Vietnam, or did our will to wage further war simply collapse? Were we defeated in Iraq, or did we decide we had other priorities? What this cliche gets at is the same as the others: Don't panic, don't make unnecessary concessions to grotesque but actually rather minor extortions. Don't respond with policies — torture, ethnic or religious persecution, aerial bombing of innocent civilians, the election of ultranationalist demagogues — of which you will be ashamed later. Salutary as that advice may be, it is also misleading. We can defeat ourselves, but that is not, alas, the only way we can be defeated.
Our values arise from our actions, as the existentialists observed, but our fates are determined by the interplay of our actions and, among many other factors, the actions of others. It would require a certain solipsism to pretend otherwise, that is, to pretend that it was all in our hands. It sounds humble when it accentuates our fecklessness, but in fact it's quite self-centered.
That's what's behind this complacent collection of cliches: (1) There is nothing we can do, because the terrorist will always get through. (2) There is nothing we must do, because the terrorist threat is not imperative. (3) There is nothing we should do, because we'd only make things worse.