Is It War, or Business as Usual?

Democrats will be making a great mistake if they seem to downplay the seriousness of the security issue by deploring "alarminst" talk of war.

The nation is waging war on terror. If the Bush administration can convince America that this is true, the electoral damage to the Republican Party in November can be contained. If the country refuses to buy it, the elections will be a rout. So goes one main line of recent commentary. And the White House seems to agree: The president's television broadcast on Monday pressed the "war on terror" for all it was worth.

And that is not much, according to many of the administration's critics. In fact, they say, this way of describing the issue is worse than useless. It is either a mistake arising from incompetence or a cynical deception. (Some, puzzlingly, say both.) In any event, it twists policy all out of shape, hampering efforts to improve security, harming America's standing abroad, and uselessly rolling back precious civil liberties at home.

So far as the politics goes, I have no doubt that the Democratic Party will be making a great mistake if it seems to downplay the seriousness of the security issue by deploring "alarmist" talk of war. Politically, it is much better for the Democrats to say that Bush is right about the gravity of the situation—and that is why putting a stop to his incompetent handling of it is so important. Accusations of alarmism are just too easy for the Republicans to recast as unseriousness, as inattention to the problem. If I were a Republican standing in this election, nothing would please me more than for my opponents to seem to say—or lend themselves to the charge that they were saying—that I was taking terrorism too seriously.

Put politics to one side for a moment and ask whether all this war talk is wise on the merits. Talk of war conveys a sense of urgency, of national priority, of the need for sacrifices of one sort or another. This does not seem inappropriate to me. Self-evidently, this is not an ordinary war, so there is a danger of misdirected effort. There has been a lot of that. But using the word does not compel anybody to advocate policies that would be appropriate only for more familiar kinds of conflict. You can call this a war, as I am inclined to, and still deplore most of what the Bush administration has done, and failed to do, in prosecuting it. With no awkwardness at all, you can call it a war without believing that the word licenses any and all infringements of personal freedom, for instance—the more so, if we are to believe that it is a war to defend those freedoms, as the president keeps saying, and one that we will be fighting for many years, as he also keeps saying. Are these distinctions really so difficult to draw?

Something else is obvious, or ought to be: We are not facing an ordinary law-and-order issue, either.

It is a more difficult problem than that, and more is at stake. Just as war talk commits you to no particular policies, however, law-and-order talk leaves options open, too. Guided by that choice of words, you can still be wise or foolish, cautious or reckless, liberal or illiberal. Britain is much more accustomed to domestic terrorism than is the United States, and culturally more inclined to use understated law-and-order talk than pumped-up we-are-at-war talk. Yet in some ways the British government has taken the assault on civil liberties since 9/11 further than America has—those liberties were less well-entrenched to begin with—and would go further still if Parliament would let it. So I cannot see that the vocabulary matters all that much.

What counts is the analysis and the prescription.

A key question—for any political calculation, but on the merits as well—is whether 9/11 confronted the United States with a changed reality of international terror or merely with a new (and possibly false) perception of it. The Web site ( of Foreign Affairs is running an interesting debate on this led by John Mueller, a political scientist at the Ohio State University and the author of a forthcoming book whose title makes his view on the matter pretty clear: Overblown: How Politicians, the Terrorism Industry and Others Stoke National Security Fears. In a new article, "Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?" and in his comments for the Web site, Mueller stresses that he is not predicting zero attacks. There will likely be more "incidents," as he calls them, from time to time. But this danger must be kept in proportion, he insists; the menace of Al Qaeda has been grossly exaggerated. Yes, they will kill again, he says:

But while keeping such potential dangers in mind, it is worth remembering that the total number of people killed since 9/11 by Al Qaeda or Qaeda-like operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000—about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor. Even if there were a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years, the likelihood that an individual American would number among the dead would be two-hundredths of a percent (or one in 5,000).

This leaves me unsure whether Mueller would regard a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years—something that would presumably test the nerves of most Americans—as refuting his claim that the terror threat has been exaggerated. Quite possibly, he would stand by it. This would still not be war, after all, in his view but more a worrisome uptick in crime.

In 1999, Mueller wrote another piece for Foreign Affairs, titled "Sanctions of Mass Destruction," in which he argued that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were much less devastating than the sanctions regime then in place against Iraq. In a first effort to put the terrorist threat in proper perspective—"To call terrorism a serious threat to national security is scarcely plausible"—Mueller contemplated terrorists with WMD:

Some 70,000 people died in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki.... A Hiroshima-sized bomb exploded in a more fire-resistant modern city would likely be considerably less devastating.... If a single such bomb or even a few of them were to fall into dangerous hands, therefore, it would be terrible, though it would hardly threaten the end of civilization.

I can't help thinking that this gives a sense of proportion a bad name. A nuke in Manhattan, let alone another 9/11, might not sway Mueller from his answer to the question "Is There Still a Terrorist Threat?"—which was, and still is, "Not a great one." For me, and I dare say for most Americans, 9/11 did indeed bear witness to a changed reality—or, at any rate, to the need to acknowledge that things had changed without our noticing.

Chronic low-level terrorism of the kind that Britain faced for years at the hands of the Irish Republican Army can be endured without much disruption to ordinary life. (Even so, the government never regarded the IRA as an ordinary law-and-order issue.) But that was because the IRA was capable of tactical restraint. It had intelligible political objectives—and it had financial backers in the United States that it could not afford to offend. That is why it kept its killings within bounds—often giving warnings before it exploded bombs, for instance, seeking to destroy property more than to maximize deaths. Global jihadism is a very different proposition. There are no intelligible political demands, no scope or appetite for negotiation or compromise. What 9/11 showed us, or left us no excuse for failing to grasp, is this: If or when Al Qaeda gets its hands on a nuclear device, it will use it without compunction, aiming to kill as many people as possible.

The 9/11 commission attributed the policy errors that preceded the attacks to a failure of imagination. Attempted nuclear attacks by Al Qaeda may or may not be likely, but they are certainly in the realm of the readily imaginable. Mere prudence demands that this terrifying threat be faced, not denied. Confronting a fear does not mean surrendering to it, or being paralyzed by it. And, to be sure, as a slogan, the "war on terror" offers no guidance, justifies nothing. Policies still have to be framed intelligently, and judged skeptically case by case, weighing costs against benefits. By those tests, this administration has failed. But to contain this new threat appropriately, a heightened sense of urgency and national direction, a willingness to pay some heavy price in resources, and, yes, some ongoing infringement of liberty are most likely going to be required.

It is something like war. It is not business as usual. Politicians who say different will lose, and deserve to.