Fear, Cynicism and Counterterrorism
My last post for the World Buzz discussed the role of military force in U.S. counterterrorism efforts. This post continues that discussion, with a look at the vicious cycle of fear and cynicism that often dominates Americans’ thoughts about terrorism, and how the U.S. government can begin to break that cycle.
The recent reports about surveillance of telephone and internet communications by the National Security Agency seem to have produced a large amount of cynicism among the American public. According to a July 2013 Pew Research poll, for the first time since 2004, Americans are more worried that their government is restricting civil liberties too much than they are worried about the government not doing enough to protect its citizens. Although the same poll shows that many Americans are comfortable with a certain degree of surveillance, the fact that so many Americans worry about their government being too active is not good for either the U.S. government or the people they work to protect.
Although the 9/11 attacks made many Americans willing to accept a stronger government presence in their lives, when the terrorist threat does not seem immediate, many Americans begin to think that terrorism is not a serious concern at all, and perhaps think that no further attacks will happen in the future. When people in airports are told to take their shoes off because one man hid explosives in a sneaker, it is easy for people to think that security agencies are not truly paying attention to threats, that the U.S. government is only trying to make it look like they are fighting terrorism. But when another terrorist attack is attempted in America (whether successfully, like the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, or not, like the 2009 “underwear bomber”), much of the public panics, and there are often calls for government officials to resign, regardless of whether those officials are truly to blame for lapses in security.
The U.S. (and other countries threatened by terrorism, for that matter) cannot afford to let counterterrorism efforts be controlled by swings in public opinion. There needs to be a consistent approach, one that ensures that basic civil liberties are not threatened while still allowing government agencies to do what is necessary to protect their civilian populations. Trade-offs between liberty and security will probably be needed, and unfortunately the Americans who speak loudly and publicly about terrorism and civil liberties are generally those who fear (usually without reason) that Washington is taking away too much freedom. But, again, popular opinion cannot be allowed to dictate national security policy.
President Obama has made a sensible, reasonable attempt to balance liberty and security, and he still has a high level of credibility on counterterrorism. He is, after all, the president who ordered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. But that credibility will only help the U.S. and the world fight terrorism if Obama uses it wisely, and soon. If he must make several additional public speeches in order to explain his policy before the American people truly understand the need for the balance he favors, so be it. If he or future presidents wait until after another attack happens to truly begin addressing the fear-cynicism cycle, the cycle will only become stronger, and harder to break.
By Michael D. Purzycki
The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of Rutgers University or the Division of Global Affairs.