The National Security and Human Rights Campaign at the Open Society Foundations supports organizations that are working to protect civil liberties in post-9/11 America and to promote national security policies that respect human rights. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, contributing Campaign grantees offer reflections on their work in this series 9/11 at 10.
The tenth anniversary of 9/11 occasioned no shortage of retrospective op-eds, essays, and blog posts, many of them critiquing America’s anti-terrorism policies. At Bloggingheads.tv, a video dialogue website I run, we opted for a collective retrospective. We’ve had more than a dozen experts come on the site and analyze America’s post-9/11 approach to fighting terrorism.
These experts didn’t agree on everything, but a number of themes recurred, and I’ve boiled them down to a list of “Lessons Learned” (the name of the video series). What follows are some of the key lessons, along with links to the specific parts of the Bloggingheads dialogues where they’re discussed. If American policy toward radical Islamic terrorism were guided by these precepts, I think America’s future would be brighter.
Lesson One: There is no such thing as Islam—at least, there is no single Islam, just as there is no single Christianity and no single Judaism. Amy Waldman, a journalist who has reported from various Muslim countries, authored the highly acclaimed novel The Submission with this tenet in mind—and discussed it in a Bloggingheads dialogue. So the question of whether Islam or Christianity or Judaism is a “religion of peace” isn’t very meaningful. The question is what kinds of things have in recent years made some Muslims turn to violence—and whether more enlightened American policies could change those things.
Lesson Two: Even when terrorists commit violence in the name of religion, the ultimate motivation is often political. Jihadist recruiters exploit Muslim anger toward the United States that is grounded in political issues. The pollster Steven Kull, who recently published a book-length study of the roots of Muslim anger toward the U.S., emphasized the belief of many Muslims abroad that they face a threat from the American military. And Scott Atran, an anthropologist who has done research in various Muslim countries, specifically cited the presence of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lesson Three: The failure to appreciate the political roots of terrorism is pernicious in multiple ways. This point emerged in an exchange between Faiza Patel of the Brennan Center of Justice and Arun Kundnani, an Open Society Fellow. As Patel noted, depicting terrorism as an essentially religious phenomenon not only keeps us from thinking about changing American policies that foster terrorism; it also reinforces negative stereotypes about Muslims, feeding an Islamophobia that in turn heightens the sense of threat among Muslims and makes the ground more fertile for jihadist recruiters. What’s more, as the legal scholar Aziz Huq noted in a dialogue with Farhana Khera of Muslim Advocates, seeing radical Islam as the true Islam has the perverse effect of lending credibility to Al Qaeda’s claim to represent the one true Islam.
Lesson Four: Islamophobia, though fostered by this confusion about the ultimate roots of terrorism, has other sources of support as well. It gets financial backing from “philanthropists” whose largesse supports such venomous bloggers as Robert Spencer. The web of Islamophobic funders, think tanks, and bloggers has been analyzed in the report Fear, Inc., compiled by the Center for American Progress. One of the report’s authors, Wajahat Ali, explained how the “anti-sharia” movement draws sustenance from this infrastructure. (And he noted that the manifesto of the accused Norwegian mass murderer Andrew Breivik cites Spencer 162 times.)
Lesson Five: Fear of terrorism is disproportionate to the actual threat. Political scientist John Mueller, co-author of the new book Terror, Security, and Money, noted that the average American is more likely to drown in a bathtub than to be killed in a terrorist attack.
Lesson Six: One result of this disproportionate fear is unconstrained spending on anti-terrorism measures. Mueller revealed that, amazingly, the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t subjected its spending to even the most rudimentary cost-benefit analysis. He and his co-author performed that calculation and, using standard cost-benefit analysis, found the amount spent on domestic security alone (not counting the cost of military interventions abroad) to be grossly inflated compared to the amount spent to save lives in other contexts. This is unfortunate in the sense that any misallocation of resources is unfortunate, but, beyond that, it’s unfortunate because some of that spending is devoted to excessive surveillance and other threats to liberty.
Lesson Seven: Inflated fear means endless war. One reflection of disproportionate fear of terrorism is “zero tolerance”—the idea that a single life lost to terrorism signifies an unacceptable failure in the fight against terrorism. As David Schanzer of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security explained, so long as that is our definition of failure, the “war on terrorism” will never end, and the government will never relinquish the extraordinary power it has amassed during that war.
Lesson Eight: A more rational, less fearful approach to fighting terrorism would dovetail with closer adherence to American values. For starters, if we indeed downsized the national security state, that would expand the space for civil liberties. And, as Kull notes, we could make long-term progress in fighting terrorism by more consistently supporting democratic values abroad; our inordinate fear of Islamist political parties in Arab nations leads to ambivalence about democratic reforms in those nations, and this apparent American hypocrisy fosters anti-Americanism among Muslims.
In other areas, too, our abandonment of American principles leads to setbacks in the fight against terrorism. President Obama has authorized the killing of an American citizen, the Yemen-based radical cleric Anwar Al Awlaki, without due process of law. In addition to immediately elevating Awlaki’s stature among jihadists, this decision led to a drone strike that wound up missing Awlaki and killing other people instead—one in a long list of drone strikes that feed the jihadist recruiting narrative that America is at war with Islam. The continued operation of Guantánamo, too, is fodder for jihadi propagandists.
In short, the more we let a fearful overreaction to terrorism drive us away from American ideals, the more we give terrorists the talking points that will help them recruit more terrorists. At a decade out from 9/11, it’s about time that we break this cycle.