Putting terrorism in perspective
Osama bin Laden
May 1st, 2012
05:12 PM ET

Putting terrorism in perspective

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of opinion essays about homeland security. Clark Kent Ervin was the first inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security. He currently is a consultant for the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Program. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the 2012 Aspen Security Forum, July 25-28.

By Clark Kent Ervin, Special to CNN

This week marks the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. What should be a cause for nationalistic chest-beating by all Americans has become, like everything else these days, a source of partisan rancor instead. But, to me, the most striking thing about the anniversary is not the hothouse political combat it is engendering, but instead the degree to which it underscores a perennial and pernicious feature of the American psyche - our tendency to lurch from one extreme to another.

We see this tendency in economic policy, with one extreme arguing for virtually no government intervention whatsoever in the marketplace (except, of course, where its own parochial interests require it) and another arguing for a government solution to virtually every problem. Common sense, as well as bitter experience, calls for a balance between the two. Left entirely to their own devices, some in the private sector will defraud consumers and abuse workers. And, left entirely to their own devices, some in government will make bad business decisions and unduly restrict individual freedom.

The same is true of terrorism. In the years following 9/11, the nation has lurched from one extreme to the other. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was hysteria. As the years have gone by without, thankfully, another major attack, the nation is in danger of slipping back into pre-9/11 complacency.

Yes, it is true that terrorism appears no longer to pose a strategic threat to our security. It is not only bin Laden who is dead, but also his perhaps even more charismatic and dangerous young American-born acolyte, Anwar al-Awlaki (the operational force behind Al Qaeda's Yemeni franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or "AQAP"), and scores of lower-level figures. "Al Qaeda Core," the organization bin Laden created and that his longtime number two, Aywan Al-Zawahiri, now heads, appears now to be a spent force. Its regional franchises, most notably the one in Yemen, continue to be a cause for concern, but policymakers believe that, excepting AQAP, they can be contained within their regional boxes for now.

Lone wolves can kill people here and there, but, almost by definition, they cannot carry out the kind of game-changing attack that was 9/11.

And, meantime, there are serious threats to national security that demand our immediate attention. Among them is China's inevitable rise as a military power; instability in North Korea; the prospect of war with Iran over its nuclear program; and the possibility of being dragged somehow into the civil war in Syria. Our continued economic fragility and our huge and growing budget crisis threaten our ability to use military force when necessary, limiting our diplomatic maneuvering room around the world.

And, yet, none of this means, or should mean, that America can go back to sleep as far as terrorism is concerned. There is the danger of just that if commentators' comments on this anniversary are read to suggest that we are out of the woods now. I worry about the words of one of our most esteemed (and rightly so) terrorism experts on the eve of this anniversary, Peter Bergen, who said the other day, "Seventeen Americans have been killed by al Qaeda or people influenced by its ideas since 9/11. More Americas die in their bathtubs by significant amounts, by accidental drowning. We don't have a fear of accidental drowning."

Indeed, we don't have a fear of accidental drowning, while we do have a fear of terrorism. And the reason for that is that they're totally different things!

It is not the number of people who are killed by terrorists that inspires fear, though, of course, the greater the number the greater the fear. It is the very fact that people are being killed, or are at serious risk of being killed, by unknown individuals for political reasons over which victims, or potential victims, have absolutely no control. The psychic impact of terrorism; the political impact of terrorism; the economic impact of terrorism are outsized relative to the number of people killed because of the unique nature of terrorism. It is the randomness of it; the politicization of it; and the deliberate targeting of civilians that make terrorism a thing apart.

Given the infinite number of targets; the open nature of American society; the vulnerabilities that remain in our counterterrorism defenses (with due credit for the significant security advances that have been made in the last decade); terrorists' determination to carry out more attacks (a determination that is no doubt heightened by their lack of success in recent years); and the ease with which, at least, low-scale attacks can be carried out, the odds remain in terrorists' favor.

What we need, then, as everyone agrees, is "perspective." But, putting terrorism in perspective shouldn’t mean all but forgetting about it if few - or, for that matter, no - people are killed. It should mean doing everything within our power to reduce our vulnerability to terrorism and to limit terrorists' ability to attack again, while recognizing that we can never be 100% safe and that, one day, terrorists will strike again.

Filed under: 1 Year After Bin Laden's Death • AQAP • Terrorism
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  8. Jason

    NOAlthough you don't expect an eoalpnatixn, the NO is not a perfect NO.As far as Pakistan supported terrorists (may be pakistan supported, or home grown, externally funded) it is not a significant issue. Although this threat exists throughout India, the presence of the word significant made me answer with a no.Naxal threat, first of all I don't like to call it terrorism but rather choose the phrase social issue . Its one of the very significant issues which should be looked in more depth and whoever comes to power should have a proper policy defined towards the issue. I grew up in Shimoga district and I've seen how the social system works in malnad region (although I was not competent enough at that time to know it in detail). Today if there are people who enter the forests to group themselves and plan an armed attack, then definitely its matter of significant concern. These people are not motivated by religious radical thoughts but its the struggle to live and a rebellion against the system which could not bring social justice.

    June 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  9. TMhorton

    This is all an elaborate hoax played against the brainwashed masses....

    May 4, 2012 at 12:09 am | Reply
  10. Scott

    Of all the great things the American people have done, like going to the moon, taking out this garbage ranks very high.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Reply
  11. Joe

    Should we really strive to protect every area we are vulnerable to terrorist attacks? When dealing with terrorism, it would clearly be ideal to be proactive rather than reactive; however, a poor proactive solution can also be worse than a good reactive solution. Therefore, we need to employ the best solutions for being proactive to terrorism as opposed to placing clearly defined obstacles. Anyone determined to committing an act of terror has the advantage due to the fact that they get to see the security obstacles and can attempt to get around them. The only area of advantage that security can have is in intelligence, technology, and secrecy. Our government needs to fund projects that employ new technologies and barriers that are seemingly invisible/unnoticeable to the public as opposed the growth of inefficient, 'politically correct' programs & agencies.

    How do you stop someone from getting through an obstacle course? Put a trap door that cannot be detected/learned where they don't expect it.
    How do you stop another person from getting through the same obstacle course? Extract information/intelligence from the first person that fell down the trap door. Then, erase their existence because they're the only ones who knew about it.

    May 2, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply

    What we need, then, as everyone
    agrees, is “perspective.” But,
    putting terrorism in perspective
    shouldn’t mean all but forgetting
    about it if few

    May 1, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  13. Clinton

    Maybe the reason people are in danger of becoming complacent to terrorism etc. is because there hasn't been any attacks in the US since then and it was a VERY rare instance before 9/11.... Maybe people are realizing that maybe it doesn't make that much sense to expand Government agencies like the TSA... who with their millions of dollars worth of equipment have found............ pretty much nothing... but hey they can look at your private parts... ........ seriously... I read a report that since the post 9/11 ramp up of Airport security.... the TSA has confiscated like 3 or 4 guns total... that's it... that's all they've done... spent millions and those 3 or 4 cases were all apparently accidental... people who were dumb enough to bring their gun all the way to the security check point.... .... that's it. in a practical sense you could say.. we've spent millions and millions of dollars in security upgrades to stop people from bringing full bottles of shampoo and hairspray aboard a plane.. that's about it.... All the genuine terrorist plots have been solved by the FBI or CIA the same way they were PRE 9/11.... But no lets continue wasting billions on the Dept of Homeland security etc.... ......... Funny how Repubs always try to pass themselves off as if they're the party that protects peoples individual Freedoms and are against big brother....... well it was one of them that Created the largest Federal agency in my lifetime (The Dept of Homeland Security) and passed the most infringing piece of legislation in my lifetime... (The Patriot Act)...... Bunch of liars...

    May 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm | Reply
    • Essau

      Americans need to let Israel destroy the Arab population. We will kill even their camels.

      Israel comes first, and America owes us fealty.

      May 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm | Reply
      • The REAL Truth...

        So Essau – you are OK with returning the $BILLIONS the US GIVES you every year and want to go it alone? Be my guest.. it's about time Israel quit hiding behind US skirts. Be a real hell of a mess over there if the PLO/Hamas/Hezbollah groups manged to be as well armed as the Israelis. There ARE people who would be willing fund that bud.
        Is that what you want? Try a little thought before you post..

        May 2, 2012 at 10:55 am |

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