Homeland Security for Grown-Ups

I have a rant in TIME Magazine this week about the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253—and the ways in which the usual suspects (including the White House, Congress and the media) are totally missing the point.

Our national conversation about terrorism needs to become more sophisticated. We cannot expect zero terrorism attempts to ever happen in our airplanes ever again. We can and must work harder to reduce the chances. But this kind of crap drives me crazy:

“I’d rather, in the interest of protecting people, overreact rather than underreact.”—Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate intelligence committee.


Terrorism is a psychological war as much as a physical war. To win such a war, it is essential not to overreact. That is the crux of the matter. If you overreact, you become a force multiplier for the terrorists.

And yet, that is exactly what we are doing. How thrilling it must be for extremists to sit in Yemen and hear about the impact of a failed mission in American skies: The U.S. president is being forced to prove he is not weak on defense (despite the fact that he just helped Yemen bomb the crap out of militants this very month, with decidedly mixed results, and despite the fact that Obama has insisted on staying in Afghanistan over the objections of many in his party); Andrew Sullivan and at least one Congressional Republican have called for the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; passengers around the world are being subjected to inane no-blanket rules and invasive frisks, just when it seemed they had no more dignity left to surrender.

Wow. Quite an accomplishment for a young man who did not successfully detonate his bomb.

Our complicity in boosting the terrorism threat was explained well by James Fallows in a 2006 Atlantic piece, “Declaring Victory”:

“Does al-Qaeda still constitute an ‘existential’ threat?” asks David Kilcullen, who has written several influential papers on the need for a new strategy against Islamic insurgents. Kilcullen, who as an Australian army officer commanded counter-insurgency units in East Timor, recently served as an adviser in the Pentagon and is now a senior adviser on counterterrorism at the State Department. He was referring to the argument about whether the terrorism of the twenty-first century endangers the very existence of the United States and its allies, as the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons did throughout the Cold War (and as the remnants of that arsenal still might).

“I think it does, but not for the obvious reasons,” Kilcullen told me. He said the most useful analogy was the menace posed by European anarchists in the nineteenth century. “If you add up everyone they personally killed, it came to maybe 2,000 people, which is not an existential threat.” But one of their number assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The act itself took the lives of two people. The unthinking response of European governments in effect started World War I. “So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization.

“It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat,” he concluded. “Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It’s al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger.”

ResilienceAmanda Ripley