Al Qaeda and the Cold War

It is noteworthy that neither John, nor Veronique, nor Tim has yet engaged my fundamental point, while it seems to me that I have engaged theirs. Of course, we can’t protect ourselves against every conceivable threat. We don’t have the resources or imagination to do that. Yes, a balance must be struck between security and liberty such that our liberties are encroached on as minimally as possible to yield the maximum possible increase in security. Certainly, politics is often played when it comes to security measures. Our policymakers should be more proactive than reactive. Rapacious contractors and their lobbyists can and do exploit our security vulnerabilities to win fat contracts and earn huge fees. And, definitely, the odds of being killed by terrorists are very low.

But, intelligence establishes that Al Qaeda and its acolytes remain determined to attack us again. Given the huge number of potential targets and the huge number of security gaps that yet remain, terrorists are more than capable of pulling off another devastating attack, and perhaps even a more devastating one (if weapons of mass destruction were acquired). And, though the odds of being killed by a terrorist are low, the consequences of another terror attack would be significantly greater than the consequences of the same number of people being killed in another fashion.

While what I did say has gone unanswered, what I didn’t has been refuted. I didn’t say anything about the Cold War in my initial post, Tim, but now that you mention it, let’s talk about it.

Reasonable minds can differ about why, exactly, we won the Cold War. I’m of the view that it is as likely as not that we won because we took the threat of communism seriously and the Soviets ultimately couldn’t keep pace with our defensive expenditures. No less an authority on the subject than Mikhail Gorbachev has said as much. To the extent that there are any similarities between the communists and the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, this argues for more defenses and greater expenditures rather than fewer.

But, there’s a fundamental difference between the communists and the terrorists. Sure, the formers were fanatical, but they weren’t “nuts” about it. That is to say, there was a line beyond which the communists, being rational and temporally oriented, were unwilling to cross. The doctrine of mutual assured destruction kept the communists (and us) in our respective boxes. Today’s terrorists, on the other hand, are not just willing to die for their cause; they are eager to. This argues for taking the threat from them even more seriously than we took the threat from communists.

Also, Tim misconstrues what I said about the existence (or lack thereof) of God. It wasn’t a point about religious faith, really. It was what’s called an “analogy.” I was simply making the point that it’s less dangerous to take the terrorists seriously than it is to take them lightly, just as it’s less dangerous to believe in God and act accordingly in case there really is one. It’s really a point about risk and the prudent management of it. That, surely, is what security is all about.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Some Reflections on What, if Anything, “Are We Safer?” Might Mean by John Mueller

    Five years after 9/11, are we any safer? In the lead essay of this month’s Cato Unbound, Ohio State University political scientist John Mueller offers a set of provocative reflections on what that question might mean. Along the way, Mueller argues that the terrorist threat to American lives is overblown, and that the attempt to protect ourselves against any possible attack is impossible, and a waste of taxpayer money. “It would seem to make more sense,” Mueller writes, “to substantially abandon the quixotic policy of seeking to make everything (or even a lot of stuff) safe, and then use the money saved to repair any terrorist damage and to compensate any victims.”

Response Essays

  • I’d Rather Err on the Side of the Believers by Clark Kent Ervin

    Clark Kent Ervin, Director of the Homeland Security Initiative at the Aspen Institute, and author of Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack counts himself among those who “strongly disagrees with both [John Mueller’s] premises and his conclusions.” Ervin stresses al Qaeda’s repeated intention to again attack the United States, and the alleged proliferation of terror cells in the United States and abroad. Ervin takes issue with what he calls Mueller’s “argumentum ad statisticum”—comparing terrorist murder to accidental death—and maintains that in a context of uncertainty about future attacks, “I’d rather err on the side of the believers. The downside of being wrong is so much smaller!”

  • Spending too Much the Wrong Way on the Wrong Things by Veronique de Rugy

    Veronique de Rugy, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues that the $271.5 billion devoted by the federal government to homeland security since 9/11 has not been well spent. “Not only are we over-investing in homeland security,” de Rugy argues, “but most times we spend too much money in the wrong way and on the wrong things.” The consequence is that we are no safer. “Bad security is often worse than no security at all,” de Rugy writes. “By trying, and failing, to make ourselves more secure, we make ourselves less secure.”

  • The Terrorist Threat Today by Timothy Naftali

    Timothy Naftali, author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism, argues that “the threat is getting wider without being deeper,” with new terror recruits failing to form “the kind of militaristic groups that would be needed to mount a serious military threat to the U.S. mainland.” Naftali argues that though the Bush administration deserves credit for weakening Al Qaeda, it has otherwise been “largely incompetent” in denying terrorists sanctuaries, and discouraging recruits to violent extremism. The main danger, Naftali contends, is that a terror group acquires a loose nuke, and the U.S. needs to attend more to this specific problem.

The Conversation