Earlier, I posted my thoughts about whether terrorism was still a threat, noting that in one sense the answer was obviously yes, but asking whether 9-11 was the outlier it seemed to be. My post was intended to provoke a discussion, and the best response was by Dave Schuler, reproduced here in full:

The question reminds me of the story of the guy who jumped off the Empire State Building. As he passed the 30th floor, someone yelled to him “How are you doing?” to which he responded “So far, so good.”

Of course 9/11 is an outlier. Unfortunately, from a political standpoint that’s irrelevant. Any resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. will necessarily respond to such an event (my view is that President Gore would have done virtually everything that President George W. Bush did , including invading Iraq, but I seem to be an outlier in that belief).

Yes, terrorism is a threat. As I pointed out in my memorial post, we haven’t really responded prudently to the threat yet. In my view there are only two prudent responses: interrupt one of the critical success factors for the attacks on 9/11 or decide we’d rather live with the risk.

“Guys with a grievance”, the factor most frequently referred to including in this comment threat, isn’t one of the critical success factors.

I don’t disagree with Dave. However, I think the response “of course 9-11 is an outlier” is only true depending on how you define “outlier”. I agree that 9-11 is an obvious outlier in terms of scale, but was that just luck? if any number of things in the 9-11 plot had gone awry, the best they might have achieved would be a multiple of Flight 93. As Dave notes, these amount to “critical success factors” but interupting them is easy in hindsight knowledge of the plot.

Its possible that there are other similar casualty-amplifying plots out there which also have critical success factors, but for which we lack the benefit of hindsight to interrupt. Ironically, the success of such future plots is probably much lower due to 9-11’s success, since 9-11 being so “out of the box” has changed our own security approach to compensate. So 9-11 might well be a one-shot, as long as we continue to be proactive in imagining how our technology can be used against us. I agree there is always going to be some residual risk of a mass casualty attack on the same scale, using a method we havent yet predicted or are able to anticipate.

The trade-off between that residual risk, and our basic liberties, is one that polarizes our modern political discourse. I agree with Dave that President Gore might well have taken many of the same actions as President Bush (though it’s certain he would have acted less unilaterally in invading Iraq). Had that been the case, perhaps it would be liberals who now advocate aggressive interrogations and unilateral executive authority, and conservatives defending the liberty side of the security vs liberty equation. As things stand today, however, conservatives betray their heritage by favoring less liberty and more security, rallying behind fmr Vice President Cheney’s self-serving insistence that the Obama Administration is making the country less safe.

(for the record, Attorney General Holder’s decision to launch a very limited, initial investigation into torture of detainees was an agonizing and painful one undertaken at Holder’s own conscience, and actually in defiance of Obama‘s preference. Obama would rather “look forward” but the Attorney General has the freedom to act as he thinks best.)

But in terms of who carried out the attacks, their motivations, their grievances, etc whether or not 9-11 was an outlier is a different question. If 9-11 was indeed no outlier by these standards (as few would disagree), then why do we need an explicit “war on terror” at all? A combination of heightened security at sensitive points (mass transit, government buildings, landmarks) and good old-fashioned investigative police work and traditional (lawful) interrogation methods will be enough to disrupt plots on Western soil by would-be jihadis – of which all have been rather inept thus far in the post-9-11 era. Case in point: the liquid bomber plot, which finally has resulted in some convictions after three trials.

Conservative partisans of the Bush Administration will sneer at the phrase “post-9-11 approach to terrorism” but the truth is that an obsessive focus on preventing the next 9-11 – and using it to justify all manner of compromises of our basic liberties, embracing illegal methods of torture, and engaging in adventurous military expeditions to remake every possible home for Al Qaeda to take roost – will make us more vulnerable to the actual threat of terrorism, which has continued unabated on a scale far smaller than 9-11, but at a much higher frequency worldwide. Liberal partisans of the “anti-Bush” school will sneer at the phrase “nation-building”, equating any military action by the US in a foreign land as imperialism redux, but ignoring the fact that terrorists are able to exploit failed states, and the very real correlation between medieval Islamic regimes and their hospitability to foreign jihadis, will ensure further attempted acts of mass-casualty terrorism, both on our soil and abroad.

And therein lies the problem. The discourse on both right and left remains dominated by 9-11, even as the right and left shout at each other across a widening rhetorical divide. To really make progress in reducing the threat of terrorism, to both the West and the muslim world alike, we need to be able to free ourselves of the 9-11 mindset and identify the true forces at work which drive these conflicts and grievances. In a nutshell, those forces are nationalism and a backlash against secularism, which has fostered nothing but corruption and autocracy in the muslim world in general and in the Middle East in particular. to put it bluntly, we can use that. The details are a topic for another post, however…

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