After Boston: Don't Get Fooled Again by the 'War on Terror' Hawks

Yes, of course terrorism is real. But that doesn't mean the hawkish approach to counterterrorism hasn't been discredited.

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The self-assurance of War on Terror hawks is one of the most peculiar phenomena in our politics. You'd think that the failure to foresee or stop the biggest terrorist attack ever carried out on U.S. soil would've caused guys like Dick Cheney to question their own geopolitical prescience. Instead, they immediately began urging the invasion of Iraq they'd long desired, insisting it was necessary to keep Americans safe. They got their war. As efforts to "keep us safe" go, it was a spectacular failure: Almost 4,500 Americans died in Iraq. More than 30,000 were wounded. Despite deaths and casualties far greater than on 9/11, the hawks insist to this day that Iraq was a prudent war. They're ideologues who can't see or won't admit failures, facts be damned.

Don't forget that.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon, the War on Terror hawks are speaking out with characteristic bluster. An uninformed observer might easily mistake their certainty for wisdom or competence. There is, in fact, no reason to trust their judgment on foreign policy or counterterrorism. Their dearth of self-doubt should be unnerving, not reassuring. And most Americans will recognize as much, so long as they're reminded of the catastrophic policies the hawks unapologetically advocated, the many times their predictions have proven wrong, and the logical flaws in the arguments that they've been making in response to last week's terrorist attack. 

One ongoing controversy concerns whether the criminal justice system is capable of grappling with terrorists. Cheney himself warned against a law-enforcement approach to terrorism in a 2009 speech, and much of Congress is averse to trying accused terrorists in the federal court system. You'd think that law enforcement's success apprehending the Tsarnaev brothers, the elder brother's death, and the solid evidence against the younger brother would suggest that the criminal justice system is in fact capable of bringing terrorists, or at least these particular suspects, to justice.

John Yoo thinks this case shows the inadequacy of the law-and-order approach.

"How is this a victory for traditional law enforcement?" he asks in an item at the American Enterprise Institute's blog. "Two young brothers, lightly armed, killed several innocent civilians, wounded 170, killed an officer and wounded another, and shut down one of America's great cities. We had a whole city trapped in its homes and paramilitary forces in its streets. Law enforcement alone means the nation lies vulnerable to attacks on soft targets and must expend enormous resources to catch the killers afterwards. A pre-emptive strategy based on intelligence and the use of force overseas seeks to prevent such attacks further from our shores. That option should be preferred by everyone compared to what we've seen in Boston these last five days."

What a slippery rhetorician. Obviously, the United States should preempt terrorist attacks using intelligence when possible. Does anyone disagree? Can anyone deny that we already dedicate significant resources to intelligence gathering? Yoo writes as if that wasn't happening prior to Boston. For years now, we've also been preemptively using force overseas. The drone war waged in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere didn't stop the Tsarnaevs. And it is difficult to imagine any preemptive war that could have stopped two legal residents of the U.S. from attacking their city. Exactly which country would Yoo have had us invade to stop those bombs? But never mind. Yoo has an ideological predisposition to preemptive war. So he implies that it would've made us safer in this case, even though that makes no sense given the facts. It should also be noted that the Tsarnaevs did not shut down a major American city. Boston wasn't shut down by their bombs. The day after the marathon, Bostonians kept calm and carried on. 

The suspects were still at large, and at that point, unknown. The Tsarnaevs failed to shut down Boston with their violent act. Once they were flushed out of hiding and killed a police officer at MIT, once they engaged in a shootout with police, leaving one of them dead, authorities made a decision. Whether prudently or overzealously, it was U.S. authorities who decided to shut down Boston. Since Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was found hiding in a Watertown backyard, apparently wounded, it seems that shutting down Greater Boston, however understandable, didn't save any lives. In hindsight, shutting down a single Watertown neighborhood would've been sufficient.

Another ongoing controversy concerns the relationship between Islam and terrorism. No one denies that there are Islamist radicals who regard us as enemies. Mark Steyn wants to go a step farther:

The Tsarnaev brothers had spent most of their lives in the United States, and lived the diversity dream. They seem to have had a droll wit when it comes to symbolism: Last year, the younger brother took his oath of citizenship and became an American on September 11. And, in their final hours of freedom, they added a cruel bit of mockery to their crimes by carjacking a getaway vehicle with a "Co-exist" bumper sticker. Oh, you must have seen them: I bet David Sirota has one. The "C" is the Islamic crescent, the "O" is the hippy peace sign; the "X" is the Star of David, the "T" is the Christian cross; I think there's some LGBT, Taoist, and Wiccan stuff in there, too. They're not mandatory on vehicles in Massachusetts; it just seems that way. I wonder, when the "Co-exist" car is returned to its owner, whether he or she will keep the bumper sticker in place. One would not expect him to conclude, as the gays of Amsterdam and the Jews of Toulouse and the Christians of Egypt have bleakly done, that if it weren't for that Islamic crescent you wouldn't need a bumper sticker at all. But he may perhaps have learned that life is all a bit more complicated than the smiley-face banalities of the multicultists.

Multiculturalism is its own ideology with its own flaws. Publicly urging Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other ethnic, religious, and ideological groups to coexist peacefully is not one of those flaws. Why would Steyn, surveying all possible targets in this fallen world, choose "Co-exist" to mock, as if the wisdom of merely urging co-existence could be disproved by two terrorists? I suppose a traditionalist conservative could be forgiven for shaking his head wistfully at that bumper sticker. "If only. Alas, the crooked timber of humanity will always war with one another." In place of that tragic view, Steyn gives us farce, implying that, but for Islam, all others would live in peaceful coexistence, an implication so silly that he wouldn't dare to state it plainly.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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