The first person I heard discuss the terrorist threat to America was a man named Brian Michael Jenkins. This was back in 1978, at a conference in Berlin. At the time, people who thought about defense mainly thought about the Soviet nuclear arsenal or the aftereffects of Vietnam.
Yet at this conference Jenkins, then in his mid-thirties and a scholar at the RAND Corporation, explained that even a power as fearsome as the Soviet Union might not be the worst threat to the United States and its allies in the long run. "We are approaching an age in which national governments may no longer monopolize the instruments of major destruction," he said. "The instruments of warfare once possessed only by armies will be available to gangs. It will not be possible to satisfy the real or imagined grievances of all the little groups that will be capable of large-scale disruption and destruction, or to defend everyone against them … In the future, warfare—highly destructive warfare—may be waged without the necessity for armies and governments, by people with little to lose."
When I came across notes from that conference recently, Jenkins's comments drew my attention in a way they hadn't the first time around. I mention them here less to establish his prescience (he had made similar arguments in a 1975 book) than to illustrate how long he has been thinking about the subject. For most of the past thirty years he has worked as an anti-terrorism expert in the government, at RAND, and in a private risk-consulting firm. He looks nothing at all like the former governor Jesse Ventura or the former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage—two bald, burly, aggressive-sounding veterans of U.S. Navy training. But Jenkins, who is lanky and elegantly dressed and roughly resembles the actor Roy Scheider, is a former Army Green Beret who served during the invasion of the Dominican Republic and in Vietnam; as with Ventura and Armitage, I have felt when seeing Jenkins every few years that it would not be surprising to find him crawling under barbed wire with a dagger in his teeth.
In short, Jenkins is no softie. But when I spoke with him a few days after the presidential election, he lamented the meaningless tough talk about terrorism that he had heard from both candidates. Among his colleagues in the anti-terror and counterinsurgency business, he said, "there is a recognition that we have to get beyond just shooting terrorists." They understand that this struggle will be with us for a very long time, that success will mean reducing rather than absolutely eliminating the threat of attacks, and that because there is no enemy government or army to surrender, there can be no clear-cut moment of victory. "Ironically, when President Bush said this in the campaign, he was immediately jumped upon," Jenkins said. "It was a moment of truth for which he was promptly punished. Senator Kerry had a similar moment, when he said that the objective was to reduce terrorism to no more than a nuisance. Conceptually that was quite accurate, even if it was not the most felicitous choice of words. And he was punished too. In a campaign with a great deal of nonsense about the threat of terrorism, these two moments of truth were mightily punished, and the candidates had to back away and revert to the more superficial and less supportable assertions."
Superficial or make-believe political discourse is not the fundamental problem in some areas of public life. Take Iraq: America's main challenge is not that people are reluctant to discuss their good ideas for speedy progress toward a stable society and a quick removal of U.S. troops. It is that good ideas don't exist. But after spending a long time listening to, talking with, and reading about people in the United States and elsewhere who are involved in the struggle to control terrorism, I think that in this area our constrained public discourse is much of the problem.
Good ideas about coping with terrorism do exist. They are available practically by the metric ton. My desk groans beneath the reports from high-level federal commissions alone. Most recently there was the 9/11 Commission, but before that came the Deutch Commission and the Gilmore Commission and the Bremer Commission and the Hart-Rudman Commission. Just after George W. Bush took office this last group warned that America's big challenge in the years ahead would be mass-casualty attacks on its cities. Americans who took the time to read some or all of these reports might not feel calmer about the world, but they would think that the studies represent public money well spent. And the commission reports are just the beginning. Late last year the Century Foundation released Defeating the Jihadists, by the former chief of White House anti-terror efforts, Richard Clarke, which included a sweeping list of recommendations. The war colleges, the Council on Foreign Relations, scholars in the political-science and public-policy departments of most major universities, and numerous independent researchers have all published books or monographs containing detailed action plans.
The problem really is not the lack of sensible answers. It is the reluctance to present them. In public it is hard for politicians to say things their backers don't already agree with. Yet doing just that constitutes leadership, and a re-elected president has a chance to demonstrate leadership—in this case by laying out the hard truths that people waging this struggle clearly understand.
For instance: This "war" will never be over, unlike the Civil War, the Vietnam War, or even the current war in Iraq. There will always be a threat that someone will blow up an airplane or a building or a container ship. Technology has changed the balance of power; it is easier for even a handful of people to threaten a community than it is for the community to defend itself. But while we have to live in danger, we don't have to live in fear. Attacks are designed to frighten us even more than to kill us. So let's refuse to magnify the damage they do. We'll talk about the risk only when that leads to specific ways we can make ourselves safer. Otherwise we'll just stop talking about it, as we do about the many other risks and tragedies inevitable in life. We will show that we are a free, brave people by controlling our fears. We admired Britain during the Blitz because people went about their lives rather than fretting at every minute that they might die. Let us be admirable in the same way.
In addition to being brave we have to be serious. We cannot waste any more time on make-believe. Make-believe includes arguing about whether our efforts should be like crime-fighting or war-fighting. They should be like both—and like a public-health campaign, a propaganda effort, and many other models that might prove useful. Make-believe involves measures that seem impressive but do not make us safer, such as national threat-level warnings and pro forma ID checks. The most damaging form of make-believe is the failure to distinguish between destructive but not annihilating kinds of attack we can never eliminate but can withstand and the two or three ways terrorist groups could actually put our national survival in jeopardy. We should talk less about terrorism in general and more about the few real dangers.