Learning to live with terrorism
The Atlantic - 08/15/2016
In word and in deed, Obama has emphasized resilience to terrorism more than many other U.S. leaders, said Stephen Flynn, a national-security expert at Northeastern University. But the shift Obama embodies actually began during the second term of the George W. Bush administration, as U.S. officials came to recognize that their overseas war against al-Qaeda had splintered the terrorist threat, rather than defeating it as initially intended. This fragmentation made a 9/11-scale attack less likely, but lesser-scale attacks more likely. And these less-sophisticated attacks are often very difficult, if not impossible, to thwart.
“This was the professional consensus” by the end of Bush’s presidency, “but it wasn’t something widely shared because politicians didn’t want to say this was too hard,” Flynn told me. They didn’t want to sound defeatist.
The problem, Flynn argued, is that politicians inflate expectations by acting as if vulnerability to terrorism can be whittled down to nothing. Then, when an attack inevitably happens, people become disillusioned with government and disempowered by fear. Demagogues exploit the situation, while the government tends to overreact by taking more drastic action to address the threat and making more promises it can’t keep. Then there’s another attack, and the cycle continues.