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"We have become obsessed with security": a foreign policy expert on America after 9/11

New York City Prepares To Mark The 15th Anniversary Of 9/11 Attacks
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 8: An aerial view of the Statue of Liberty, September 8, 2016 in New York City. 
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This weekend marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It’s hard to overstate how transformative that event was for this country. It has defined our politics ever since.

In 2011, the RAND Corporation published a collection of essays called The Long Shadow of 9/11. The aim was to examine the legacy of 9/11 from a variety of perspectives — military, fiscal, social, cultural, and policymaking.

One of the more instructive essays was called “The Land of the Fearful, or the Home of the Brave?” The author was Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of RAND and the former chair of its political science department. Against the backdrop of a decade-long “war on terror,” Jenkins posed some important questions: How did 9/11 change America? How differently do we see the world as a result of that attack? How have we altered the balance between liberty and security?

On Thursday, I spoke with Jenkins about his 2011 essay. I wanted to know if his views have changed in the past five years, and if he's more or less optimistic about America's response to the terror problem. A transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows.

Sean Illing: Something that doesn’t receive the attention it deserves is this pivot from war as a response to aggression to war as a preemptive instrument. Under international law, war was always understood to be a tool of last resort. A war was considered just if, among other things, it was waged in self-defense. At the very least, it had to be fought in order redress a wrong or reestablish peaceful relations.

But there’s been a paradigm shift with the “war on terror.” We’re now engaged in a permanent preventive war, where the goal is to eliminate a threat before it is imminent. How significant is this strategic shift in your mind?

Brian Michael Jenkins: Wow. You are right on top of something, Sean. We have, both at the strategic level and at the international level and the domestic individual level, pushed toward preventive war, which is quite new. When you look at warfare traditionally, it’s a response to an act of aggression, at least in our recent history. Instead, what we have seen is an articulation of policy positions that say the United States will take preemptive action, preemptive military action, in order to thwart potential terrorist threats and indeed will engage in preventive military operations.

On the domestic side, the fears created by terrorism have made in the eyes of policymakers and the public a traditional reactive criminal investigative response unsatisfactory. Instead, it has pushed the authorities upstream to take action and to prevent these attacks before they occur. That has meant changing the law. It has expanded the area to which people can be prosecuted on the basis of intentions alone. It is moving us also into a dangerous place, I think.

On the international side, there are a lot of risks associated with this preemptive logic. Certainly, overreaching is one. It also makes it almost impossible to measure progress, because there's no end. You can't say how close you are. It becomes a forever war. It may be that we redefine war and get it out of the notion of a finite undertaking and have to view military operations in much the same way that we look at law enforcement. That is, while we expect police to bring perpetrators to justice, we don't operate under any illusion that at some point the police will defeat crime.

SI: You wrote in your 2011 essay that terrorism provided "a lightning rod for America's broader anxieties," and that "it held a mirror to many of America's most enduring characteristics." Can you explain what you meant by that?

BMJ: I testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in December 2001, three months after 9/11, and one of the senators asked me, "Mr. Jenkins, it's been three months since 9/11. Nothing has happened. Are we through it yet?" He was really asking, “Has the prospect of another 9/11 scale attack diminished?”

I think everyone was in agreement that this was going be a long-term task. Had I been able to report that 15 years later our jihadist terrorist foes had been able to kill fewer than 100 people in the United States over the 15-year period — that certainly would be far less than people feared. I know every death is a tragedy, so I don't want to diminish that and say, "It was just fewer than 100, so what?” But in a country that experiences 14,000 to 15,000 criminal homicides a year, terrorism on this level isn’t going to bring down a republic.

SI: That leads nicely to my follow-up question: Do you think our persistent preoccupation with terrorism scales with the actual threat level?

BMJ: No. They're two separate domains entirely. The fear of what terrorists might do vastly exceeds any realistic assessment of the individual risk. Therefore, if we look at the levels of apprehension, we have to ask, "What is going on here?" The likelihood of an American being killed in the United States at the hands of a terrorist approaches lottery odds. This is not a major threat to our personal security.

But terrorism now has a face. It's a lighting rod, a condenser for broader anxieties. Americans are apprehensive about the changing demographics of the country, the changing ethnic complexion of the country, the status of the United States as a world superpower, about the economic future of the United States. Those anxieties fuel fears of terrorism as the fear of terrorism becomes an expression of these broader anxieties.

A soldier at Guantanamo Bay.
A soldier at Guantanamo Bay.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

SI: You’ve said that "the 9/11 attacks did not create a security state, but they created a state preoccupied with its security." What’s the distinction?

BMJ: We have become obsessed with security. The most frequent question I am asked is, "Are we safer now?" As if that is the sole criteria for measuring what is taking place. We are involved in a struggle, and it is a tough struggle.

This is controversial, but if we include the invasion of Iraq and dealing with the insurgents in Iraq along with the war in Afghanistan as part of the broader post-9/11 military operations, we're talking 10,000 American fatalities, 50,000 wounded, somewhere between $4 trillion and $6 trillion spent. It's not a level anywhere near the level of casualties that we experienced with Vietnam or Korea or World War II, where we lost over 400,000 men and women in combat.

During World War II, I don’t think anyone would ask the question, "Are we safer now?" But this has become our obsession, and it pushes authorities to try to abolish all risk.

SI: Terrorism has become one of our most salient political issues. What are the implications of this in terms of our discourse and our national psychology?

BMJ: It has become an obsession, and I think it's had a distorting effect, and one could say that's precisely what's it's supposed to do. Terrorism is calculated to create an atmosphere of alarm, which will in turn cause people to exaggerate the threat, and it often works. When people see an administrative building in San Bernardino or a nightclub in Orlando attacked, they don’t turn to statisticians and say, "What are the odds of that happening here?" They are frightened, and therefore terrorism has this corrosive effect on a broader society.

SI: One thing that concerns me is our response to another 9/11-like attack, which seems to me inevitable. Are you confident that we won't overreact when or if this happens?

BMJ: I'm not nationally recognized in the field of prophecy, so I'm not going to say whether there could or could never be another 9/11-scale attack. I don't know. I think we are far better-equipped now than we were before 9/11.

SDI: Perhaps not on the scale of 9/11, but I think it's inevitable that there will be other major attacks.

BMJ: There will be other attacks. My point is that an attack would not have to achieve the scale of the 9/11 to provoke an extraordinary reaction. A terrorist attack does not have to kill thousands. If we experienced in an American city what Paris experienced last fall, that might suffice to propel us into an extraordinary response abroad and in this county. It doesn't have to hit the 9/11 record to provoke the overreaction.

Again, if we look at the polling, immediately after 9/11 about 41 percent of the American people were frightened at the possibility of another terrorist attack taking place within weeks. That speaks to the efficacy of terrorism as a tactic.

SI: From our perch in 2016, can you say that we’ve sustained the shock of 9/11 without sacrificing our core values and principles as a country?

BMJ: I think we have. It would be erroneous to claim that civil liberties have been savaged. That will provoke a quarrel on the part of some people who make a good case that we have done things that are contrary to our basic values in terms of interrogation, in terms of intelligence, in terms of torture, in terms of some of these prosecutions.

But we haven't abandoned our systems and our laws entirely. We've involved ourselves in activities that were outside the rules, which has been revealed, and we're debating these now. I think that that tension, that debate, is absolutely essential. That's what you do in a free society.

Are there some concerns? Absolutely. But I don't think we’ve ripped up the Constitution. We have, however, put into place an awful lot that under a less benign government or a more frightened citizenry could become the basis for extraordinary changes in our society. So there’s a risk of incremental tyranny against which we have to guard.