Certainly, some of the government programs created to address vulnerabilities exposed by the 9/11 attacks were long overdue. The U.S. needed a much better system for screening air travelers, one that did not allow people to board airplanes with lethal weapons in hand. And it made sense to harden New York’s underwater subway tunnels to limit the damage a bomb could do to both passengers and the city’s infrastructure.
But for every valid effort, it seems like the terrorism-industrial complex came up with an array of boondoggles that were profitable for the companies involved but added little to the security of ordinary Americans. The upwards of $47 billion spent on FirstNet, the troubled effort to make sure firefighters and police could talk to each other in an emergency, staggers the imagination. Altogether, Brill calculates, the government has spent $100 to $150 billion on equipment and programs that do not work. What might have been accomplished if all of that money had been spent on, say, reducing the cost of a college education for poor and middle-class kids?
“Never again” might have made some sense when the enemy America faced, al-Qaeda, put all of its effort into planning terrorism spectaculars like the simultaneous attack on two American embassies or the destruction of the Twin Towers. The international logistics and footprint required for such operations gave intelligence and law-enforcement officials something to detect.
Unfortunately, as Brill points out, the nature of terrorism has evolved over the past 15 years, much as a virus changes shape in reaction to mankind’s disease-fighting efforts. The threat posed by ISIS relies to a much greater extent on the tools of the networked world.
A generation ago, young militants frequently traveled to war zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, or Bosnia, where they were radicalized by what they saw. Europeans still make that journey to Syria, but the new face of terrorism in the United States looks more like Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the young couple who shot 14 people at the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. Using little more than the internet, ISIS has inspired disturbed people around the world to take up kitchen knives, axes, and trucks as weapons in the service of jihad. In many of these cases, the group had no direct contact with the attackers.
For journalists and policymakers who followed al-Qaeda at its peak, it is impossible to imagine Osama bin Laden approving an al-Qaeda operation of such modest dimensions.
Yet, ISIS seems to understand the new possibilities created by social media. And the spate of attacks by self-radicalized jihadis has stirred deep, disproportionate fears among many American voters.
It is no coincidence that Donald Trump’s core support comes from voters who fear for their security. The fact that between 40 and 50 percent of surveyed U.S. voters agree with his call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigrants is a testament to how effectively ISIS has gotten inside the heads of Americans. Religiously motivated violence is seen as far more threatening than the mass shootings that punctuate American life, as James Comey, the FBI director, pointed out to Brill in the story. That the San Bernardino shooters were declared supporters of ISIS “generates anxiety that another shooting incident, where the shooter isn’t a terrorist, doesn’t. That may be irrational, but it’s real,” Comey said.