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Seven Years Later: Complacency

Benjamin Wittes is a Fellow and Research Director in Public Law at The Brookings Institution and a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law.

America has grown complacent, and how could it have done otherwise? For years, we have not felt the war our government insists remains a reality. We keenly feel two related wars, the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the war on terror has certainly persisted as a legal reality, and in some sense also as a civic reality. But it has long since ceased to be a practical and emotional reality. We don't fear getting on airplanes. We don't turn on the news expecting the worst. We talk about catastrophic acts of terrorism, once an immediate fear, with a remoteness that bespeaks peacetime, with sentences starting with "if."

Every success we have had against Al Qaeda--some of them significant--has augmented our disbelief in the problem. These successes aren't highly visible battles our forces win, where their victory dramatically reinforces our sense of the enemy's presence. They are small incidents whose consequence is that big incidents don't happen. They sometimes take place altogether invisibly. Or they seem inevitable, because once captured, the Richard Reids and Jose Padillas seem more pathetic than terrifying and we can't quite imagine them as the Mohammed Attas they aspired to be. We can wonder if the Bush administration inflated the threat. And we can reassure ourselves that law enforcement really offers adequate tools to manage the problem, if the problem is as serious as all that anyway.  

As law professor Peter Spiro put it in a thoughtful critique of my recent book on law and counterterrorism, "Leave aside the now familiar factoid that more Americans drown in their own bathtubs than are killed by terrorists. Aside from a single, spectacularly successful attack on downtown Manhattan, terrorists haven't been very effective of late, or at least no more effective than they had been pre-9/11." Although I disagree with him--terrorism still is a really big deal--I nonetheless find myself imagining an attack on the Golden Gate bridge, or on my local Starbucks, a lot less now than I did a few years back.

But here's the rub: Eventually, we will face another major attack, because killing large numbers of people is just so much easier than stopping all efforts to kill large numbers of people. And if we know this logically, even as we deny it emotionally, we have no choice but to continue the war on terror in some form, even if we have come to suspend our fervor for it.

The concept of war is not the construct that will govern--psychologically, politically, and legally--our continuing response to Al Qaeda. We need a new one that somehow describes a long-term, low-level conflict that takes place worldwide and partakes simultaneously of aspects of warfare, law enforcement, covert action, and diplomacy--a construct that does not depend on our ongoing, day-to-day sense of menace. Because as hard as it is to remember the reality of the enemy after seven years, it will grow only harder still until the day it all comes rushing back, and we chastise ourselves anew for complacency and failing to heed the warnings that today seem so far-fetched.