Six years after 9/11, we're still not thinking strategically.
U.S. officials also need to integrate a better understanding of its adversaries into the nation's defenses. Terrorists seek targets that will resonate with their constituents. We should ask what will play in Peshawar, Pakistan, not Peoria, Ill. Despite Thompson's fears, planning for a massive agro-terrorism event would be wasteful if al-Qaida or its affiliates have no intention of laying waste to the U.S. corn crop. The United States has spent billions on port security, yet, to our knowledge, no jihadist group has ever devised a serious attack plan for such a strike.
As these criticisms suggest, better security doesn't require spending more on defending even more potential targets. Clark Kent Ervin, the former inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, warns that terrorists could attack shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, nightclubs, and similar soft targets and, in so doing, "terrorize the entire nation." Perhaps. But at the same time, Ervin notes that terrorism is "like water, it seeks, finds, and takes the path of least resistance." Ironically, such a statement also argues against protection.In theory, we could guard every restaurant, nightclub, gas station, or for that matter, any place where people congregate. But even if all public places were protected, the terrorists could simply shoot the guards and proceed with their attack. In practice, we can't protect everything, and we must remember that terrorists have their own priorities that lead them to concentrate on a limited set of targets.
It is tempting to say that too much preparation never hurts and that a steady drumbeat of fear is necessary to prepare for what is, in the end, a dangerous movement. After all, who wouldn't drive a car that was "too safe" or eat a diet that was "too healthy"? But excess preparation for homeland security can waste tens or hundreds of billions of dollars that could be better spent on fighting terrorists abroad, or, for that matter, on health care, auto safety, or a tax cut. Aside from the dollars wasted, many of the proposed defensive measures could impede trade, discourage tourism, and restrict civil liberties.
The very concept of homeland security is new for Americans, and the department was thrown together quickly and involved many already-dysfunctional bureaucracies. Even so, our nation's dialogue on homeland security is disappointing. Mistakes, misconceptions, and a lack of strategic thinking are tolerable in the immediate aftermath of an unprecedented terrorist attack like 9/11, but they are less forgivable six years later.
Daniel Byman is a professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.
Photograph of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images.