Rethinking the War on Terror

Since 9/11, more than 12 years ago, we have spent approximately $1.5 trillion on the so-called War on Terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and domestically. The most sophisticated technology has been developed and deployed to detect terrorist “chatter” on internet and cellular communications. A multi-billion-dollar drone program has been employed to blow up terrorists in Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. Passengers on airplanes have to undergo humiliating pat-downs and full body scans.

The toll hasn’t been only in dollars and inconvenience. More than 2,100 servicemen and -women have died in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida, with thousands of others wounded. All this expenditure of lives and money has been in the name of the War on Terror.

Yet, last week, two social misfits, who attended college on the dime of American taxpayers, from a country that most Americans couldn’t place on a map, detonated two bombs in one of the most high-profile annual sporting events in the U.S., killing three and wounding 180 others. The two terrorist brothers, with a couple of $20-pressure- cookers-turned-bombs, also succeeded in paralyzing the city of Boston for three days, inflicting millions of dollars of damage on the city’s economy.

Does that mean that the War on Terror has been an epic and expensive flop?

Not necessarily. Certainly, the destruction of terrorist camps in Afghanistan and the death of Bin Laden have helped avert the type of terror we witnessed on 9/11. More vigilant screening at airports has prevented terrorists from committing carnage in the air.

But, as last week’s bombing illustrates, we must recognize two stark and discomfiting facts about the fight against terrorism:

One is the belief that terrorism can be fully eradicated. We have to get rid of the naive notion that the War on Terror is a conventional war with a clear beginning and end. It’s just as ludicrous to believe that declaring war against terror would end terrorism as announcing that a war on crime would end all criminal activity. There were 16,000 murders in the U.S. last year. No one is foolish enough to call for a war against murder.

Two, we have to come to the realization that the war on terror requires an adjustment in how we view our freedoms. As Americans, we greatly value freedom and are suspicious of a government acting as “Big Brother.” Indeed, it is a difficult balance for a democratic government to on the one hand protect the privacy of its citizens, yet, on the other, to scrutinize the activities of those who will use the protection afforded by a democracy to plan terrorist acts.

Increased government surveillance is something from which many Americans recoil; increased monitoring by government is a potentially dangerous slippery slope. It will take deep thought to conceive of regulations that will prevent the abuse of heightened scrutiny, but such watching is necessary to combat the kind of domestic terrorism perpetrated last week.

More monitoring of internet postings is necessary to identify those spouting terrorist ideologies.

More surveillance cameras are needed, as well. According to one study, there were only 55 security cameras watching the entire city of Boston. The lack of adequate police surveillance cameras became painfully evident early on in the investigation when law enforcement officials called on the public to turn in their cell phones in case some footage of the bombers was captured.

By contrast to Boston’s paltry 55 cameras, New York City has more than 3,000 eyeing downtown Manhattan alone. New York City’s subways have 5,000 cameras providing real-time surveillance of the subway system. London’s “Ring of Steel,” with the most sophisticated camera network in the world, has over 500,000 cameras scanning the city. Security cameras are relatively cheap and, according to one Department of Homeland Security study, more than pay for themselves in reduced crime.

Rethinking liberty also means applying a different standard of justice to terrorists. When terrorists abuse the freedom granted to them in a democracy to attempt to promote the destruction of that very same liberty, they should lose the right of due process granted to citizens. It has to be made clear to terrorists that they forfeit their Miranda Rights, that they are subject to the death penalty, and that justice will be swift and merciless.

Typically, the ACLU has expressed concern over the fact that 19-year-old bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has not yet been read his Miranda Rights. That’s absolute nonsense. Until the FBI and the justice department have interrogated the suspect, we can’t be sure that this was not part of a greater conspiracy to plant more bombs. The public safety exception that permits law enforcement to omit the reading of the Miranda Rights has to be applied in all cases of terrorism.

Last week’s bombing is a wake-up call that the war on terror can’t be fought conventionally. It will take a careful recalibration of what we consider to be freedom and justice in order to fight terrorism more effectively.