The Big Idea

Five Years Free

Why haven’t we been attacked again?

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After Sept. 11, 2001, nearly everyone expected life inside the United States to change significantly and for the worse. We had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we would have to learn to accommodate the ongoing threat of terrorist violence—like Israelis, Spaniards during the era of Basque separatism, and Brits in the heyday of the IRA.

As the fifth anniversary of the attacks approaches, perhaps the most surprising result is that American life has not changed very much at all. We worry more about terrorism and have to allow more time to negotiate airport security. But amazingly, al-Qaida hasn’t claimed a single additional victim inside the United States. This fact is all the more remarkable when you consider the special challenges America faces in preventing terrorism: thousands of miles of porous border; an open, mobile society; and easy access to firearms.

Does President Bush deserve the credit he implicitly claimed in today’s speech for what hasn’t happened? One might argue that our half-decade of immunity from domestic terrorism is the result of circumstances largely beyond his control. Contrary to the alarmism spread in the wake of Sept. 11, al-Qaida did not have thousands of operatives nestled inside the country. We also turn out to have had some unappreciated strengths when it comes to fighting terrorism. The most important—as Daniel Benjamin and Steve Simon argue in The Next Attack—is that America’s Muslims are more moderate, prosperous, and assimilated than Europe’s and have not been willing to serve as hosts for jihad.

But any honest appraisal has to recognize that President Bush has indeed played a role in keeping the United States free from another attack. To say this is not to say that his policy choices have been wise or that they have truly made America safer over the long term, but simply that our avoidance of domestic terrorism over the past five years is not entirely coincidental.

To begin with, the Bush administration deserves credit for its role in incapacitating al-Qaida. U.S. military and intelligence operations have not succeeded in killing or capturing Osama Bin Laden or his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. But surreptitious American-led efforts, some of which Bush acknowledged in greater detail in his East Room address, have wrecked al-Qaida as a centralized organization. The war in Afghanistan took away its operating base. As James Fallows notes ($$) in the September issue of the Atlantic, a ferocious, American-led international crackdown denied its members the ability to communicate, send money, or travel. And as Bush explained, muscular interrogation of high-level detainees (which he claims did not involve torture) helped derail a number of attacks that were being planned. What survives of al-Qaida now relies on “self-starter” clusters, of the kind that appear to have been behind the London airplane conspiracy as well as last year’s subway bombings and the Madrid train attack. You can speculate that a president other than Bush might have challenged al-Qaida in much the same way. You can argue, as Lawrence Wright does in this week’s New Yorker, that we are playing into al-Qaida’s long-term plans. But it’s pretty hard to deny that by turning al-Qaida from an organization able to commit terrorism into an organization capable only of inspiring terrorism, the Bush administration has diminished the risk of attacks against Americans over the past five years.

A second factor, Bush’s domestic assault on potential terrorists, has been a more mixed blessing. In the days after Sept. 11, the FBI proceeded to round up the usual suspects. It brought in for questioning and fingerprinting, held without charge as “material witnesses,” arrested and held secretly, or deported for visa violations, thousands of Muslim-American men. The vast majority of the suspects caught in this dragnet had done nothing wrong and planned to do nothing wrong. Wherever it was able to find any whiff of a terrorist connection or sympathy, the Justice Department pushed for the most aggressive prosecution possible, even when evidence was thin or nonexistent. At the same time, immigration authorities made it extremely difficult for Arab and Muslim men to enter the United States. This wave of repression, which has now subsided to some extent, amounted to a strategy of internal pre-emption. By locking up, harassing, or deporting a large number of American Muslims guilty either of minor infractions or of nothing at all, law enforcement authorities may well have avoided some incidents of terrorism, on more or less the same theory that Rudy Giuliani reduced crime in New York City. But a policy of mass preventive detention comes at a high cost. Because it is discriminatory and grossly unjust, repression has worked to alienate a much larger body of Muslim opinion in America and outside of it. As one former official puts it, the prevention value achieved by such policies has to be weighed against their incitement value.

A final factor in our avoidance of terrorism is Bush’s poorly judged, dishonestly sold, and incompetently executed war in Iraq. Bush didn’t occupy Iraq hoping to draw all the terrorists to one place—to “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here,” as he now sometimes puts it. But the “flypaper” effect is genuine. The occupation of Iraq has created a convenient target of opportunity, drawing terrorists who would otherwise be plying their trade somewhere else, including against Americans abroad, or by attempting to sneak into the United States. This is not to argue that the war has truly made us safer overall. To the contrary—we’ve made it easier for terrorists to kill Americans by bringing Americans to their door. As a result, the number of Americans killed in Iraq is rapidly approaching the nearly 3,000 who died on Sept. 11. What’s more, the occupation serves as a tremendous ongoing propaganda, recruiting, and training opportunity for jihadists, putting us at greater risk over the longer term. In this case, helping to keep American civilians clear of attack is merely a perversely positive side-effect of a disastrously bad policy.

This may partially explain why Bush stops short—even in today’s speech—of claiming credit for keeping the country free from another attack. But there is another, more obvious reason for him not to assert that his efforts to keep the homeland safe have succeeded. We all know that our immunity over the past five years has also been the result of extraordinary good luck. One of the lessons of Sept. 11 is that such luck can run out on any day.