James Fallows published a fantastic piece back in September of 2006 on the need for the country to declare victory in the “war on terror” and move away from the post-9/11 dynamic where our national life was so focused on the threat of al-Qaeda terrorism. It was a great idea then, and I think it remains a great idea now, and it’s especially timely since the death of Osama bin Laden affords an opportunity to actually make it happen. As Fallows says today, declaring victory doesn’t mean we need to start ignoring terrorism, it means we’d try to put the risks back into perspective:
Signifying an end to a “global war” does not mean the end of a threat. America faces a daily threat from crime; for the foreseeable future Americans and others will face a continuing threat of terrorist attack; the entire world faces a threat that the thousands of nuclear warheads still in existence could destroy millions, through accidental or deliberate misuse. But we classify all those as threats, requiring our continued vigilance and best efforts to prevent them. Rather than as ongoing, open-ended wars with the consequent distortions that wars can impose on our values, institutions, and public lives.
That seems correct to me. The threat to the physical security of Americans posed by terrorists needs to be put alongside the threat to physical security posed by “ordinary” criminals, by car accidents, etc. And the foreign policy significance of violent Islamists needs to be put alongside the foreign policy significance of China and India emerging as great powers on the global stage. Homeland security investments ought to meet a plausible cost-benefit test and not just take it for granted that anything done in the name of terrorism-prevention is worth doing. The primary mechanism through which terrorism works as a tactic is fear and panic, and in an ideal world the emotional catharsis we saw around the country last night should be a chance to put things on a more sustainable footing.
Ross Douthat makes many related points in an excellent column today.