In his investigation for The Atlantic into whether America is safer now than it was before the 9/11 attacks, Steven Brill rejects the “fantasy” that the threat of terrorism can be eliminated. And he credits the Obama administration with taking steps not only to prevent terrorist attacks, but also to reduce the damage they cause and enable Americans to rapidly recover when attacks occur. “[T]error is destined to become, yes, routine—a three- or four-times-a-year headline event,” Brill writes. The U.S. homeland will never be entirely secure.
For years now, Barack Obama has differed from most political leaders by saying, in public, that jihadist terrorism is a manageable threat rather than an existential one. The best response to terrorist attacks, he argues, isn’t to panic, which only compounds the problem. It’s to be resilient. “[F]rom Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando, we’ve seen how important it is for communities and first responders to be ready if and when tragedy strikes,” the U.S. president tells Brill.
There’s a reason many politicians don’t say these things. Obama has been ridiculed by critics who claim he is dismissing people’s legitimate fears, underestimating a grave danger, and effectively surrendering to terrorists.
What’s striking, however, is that other world leaders have been echoing Obama in recent months. “The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said after a Tunisian man in a truck plowed into revelers in Nice, sparking debate over whether France’s security services could have done more to prevent or neutralize the attack. “Besides organized terrorist attacks, there will be new threats from perpetrators not known to security personnel,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after a series of attacks by asylum-seekers, including an axe-wielding Afghan teenager on a train. Germany wouldn’t stop welcoming refugees just because a few ungrateful asylum-seekers had sought to sow fear, she added, though the government would implement reforms to make such attacks less likely. Germans, she declared, must “live with the danger of terrorism.”
These blunt statements could be interpreted as realistic assessments of the surge in terrorist activity around the world since the emergence of ISIS and the slippery, protean nature of today’s terrorism threat—no longer 19 trained, synchronized assassins who have commandeered Boeing jets, but one guy with access to the internet and an axe. They could also be interpreted as politicians trying to shield themselves from blame for their policies and for future attacks.
Regardless, they may indicate that some governments are poised to embrace a more expansive approach to counterterrorism that pairs efforts to stop terrorist attacks with new initiatives to make societies more resilient to terrorism. National and international authorities hoping to counteract climate change have gradually adjusted their focus in similar ways: Whereas they once prioritized policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions (so-called “mitigation”), they’re now also pursuing policies to help people adjust to a warming world (“adaptation”). Mitigation, for example, produces international pledges to limit global temperature increases and national regulations on cars or coal-fired power plants; adaptation leads to genetically engineered drought-tolerant crops and early-warning systems for natural disasters.
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.
My colleague James Fallows has referred to this dynamic as the “political tragedy of ‘security theater’”:
In reality, we do accept a greater-than-zero risk of death from terrorist attack. Otherwise, we’d never fly—or would strip everyone nude before boarding, do cavity searches, and carry no cargo. We accept the bargain for efficiency reasons (I’m not going to get to the airport six hours early to be searched). We accept it on “price of liberty” grounds (I’m not going to strip naked). But politicians can’t come out and say that any risk is acceptable. Nor can they take the risk themselves of saying that security-theater rituals should be dropped, because of the risk of being blamed when the next attack occurs. Thus security-theater is a ratchet. You can add it, but you can’t take it away.
“We can’t eliminate all terrorists. But we can’t eliminate disease. We can’t stop hurricanes, we can’t stop tornadoes,” Flynn told me. “We’ve accepted in our lives a lot of risk: Car accidents and so forth. [Terrorism] is a manageable risk. It’s a 21st-century reality—as it’s been a reality in every other century—that we will have these [attacks] playing out with increasing frequency.”
The terrorist threat isn’t remotely close to the kind of threat America faced during the Cold War, Flynn added: “These [terrorist attacks] are really horrible when they happen. … But we’re a huge nation, a great power, and [the attacks] in any military sense are not going to destroy the United States or destroy Europe as we know it.” Societies can bounce back surprisingly quickly from terrorist attacks. Not so with nuclear war between superpowers. And yet since 9/11, the United States has turned to a massive, secretive national-security apparatus designed for world wars and cold wars, and tasked it with fighting the very different beast of terrorism.
Investing in resilience might seem like an expression of defeat, but it could actually deter terrorists, according to Flynn. The classic definition of a threat, he noted, is that there is both intent and capability to cause harm. “The French have nuclear weapons, but they’re not a threat [to America]. They have capability, but they don’t have intent,” he explained. “And we have people who wake up each morning wanting to usher in armageddon, but they can’t get out of their bedrooms. They have intent, but no capability.”
The rationale for using terror as a means of warfare is, “It’s easy to do, and I get a big bang for my buck,” he continued. If, in a more resilient society, terrorism “became less easy to do, then fewer people would be capable of doing it. And if they did it, it’s a fizzle, not a bang,” making the use of terrorism against that society less attractive. Intent and capability, and thus the threat as a whole, would be diminished. The goal of resilience is not just to design systems so they can withstand shocks, but also so they can “fail gracefully and recover nicely.”
Resilience policies can involve governments informing the public in greater detail about the nature of contemporary terrorist threats and how to spot potential plots. They can involve governments creating community preparedness plans modeled on fire and building codes, developing mobile-phone apps to issue alerts in the event of an attack, and encouraging constituents to receive training in tactical first aid. It’s a cliche, but one that also happens to be true: People can’t entirely control the threat of terrorism, but they can control how they react to it. And exercising that control might actually decrease the threat.
What resilience does not mean is neglecting efforts to prevent terrorism. We don’t resign ourselves to car accidents: We enact laws against drunk driving and we install air bags. Instead, the goal is for societies to determine the lengths they are willing to go to try and stop terrorist attacks, and then to find ways to reconcile with the risk that remains by minimizing the costs of terrorism and, when attacks occur, learning from what went wrong and funneling those insights back into prevention.
Flynn pointed to federally funded emergency drills with security and medical personnel, which have helped contain the damage inflicted by attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing. (As with climate-change adaptation, resilience measures are typically implemented in partnership with local government, civil society, and the private sector.) “Every single person who didn’t die immediately [in Boston] was in a hospital [or en route to one] in 22 minutes, and they all survived,” he said.
But, in his opinion, the Obama administration has failed to build resilience on a number of fronts. What worries him most is the “dirty bomb in the box” scenario in which, for example, explosives mixed with radiological material are placed in a container and detonated at a U.S. port. “Should that happen, the response almost certainly will be to shut everything down to sort it out,” Flynn told me. “And that will create a series of cascading events that will shut down the global trade system within about two to three weeks.”
“Today we have no plan for how to deal with that. There’s no organized effort to work either with industry or countries for that scenario,” Flynn said. “One of the thinnest documents coming out of the Obama administration … is the Global Supply Chain Security Strategy that’s, like, five and a half pages, which includes the executive summary.”
Countries such as Israel and the United Kingdom are far ahead of the United States in terms of resilience against terrorism, according to Flynn. Their preparedness is often the result of grim necessity: In the U.K.’s case, bombings by the Irish Republican Army; in Israel’s, Palestinian terrorist attacks. Israel, Flynn noted, has established protocols specifying that within three minutes of an attack, a civilian must take charge of the emergency response if professionals haven’t arrived. Within 20 minutes, all the injured should be transported to hospitals. Within two to three hours, the site should be cleaned of debris. Within days, the site should be functioning as normal. Israeli law-enforcement officials typically conclude their investigation of the incident after the site has been cleaned up.
In Israel, the investigation is “not the priority,” Flynn explained. In the United States, by contrast, “the FBI swoops in, shuts down the entire [scene]. They’ve got to find every last hair and fingerprint. The Israeli perspective is: It’s more important to deny the adversary the sense that they caused disruption and harm.”
Still, resilience is a deliberate choice, not some destination countries are ineluctably headed toward in an age of chronic terrorism. Even as France’s prime minister reflected on the challenge of living with terrorism after the Nice attack, Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front, was urging a declaration of “war against the scourge of Islamist fundamentalism,” which would require the “necessary means of prevention and repression, and the total determination to eradicate the scourge of Islamist fundamentalism.” In the United States, Donald Trump claims Islamic terrorism is so serious a threat to America’s very existence that it justifies the U.S. government reinstating the torture of terrorism suspects, killing the families of terrorists, and banning entire religions and regions of the world from the country. The Republican presidential candidate has pledged to “liberate” Americans from terrorism.
In a way, Flynn said, Trump is reviving the rhetoric of U.S. leaders immediately after the 9/11 attacks. In Trump’s view, Flynn told me, the risk from terrorism “is unbounded and we have to do whatever it takes to destroy it.” That doesn’t bode well for the reforms Flynn would like to see. “We are in the most anti-resilient of all [political] campaigns right now,” he said. And a country is only as resilient as its leaders.