The 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks is a natural time to assess our nation’s response over the last two decades and chart a course for the future. Our single-minded focus on defeating terrorist groups claiming to act in the name of Islam over all other priorities, international or domestic, has allowed vulnerabilities to fester.
The biggest problems our nation faces today have little to do with the terrorist groups that have consumed so much of our attention. Far-right militants launched a deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. Systemic racism continues, vividly illustrated by the killing of unarmed Black men by police. The mishandled coronavirus pandemic killed more than half a million Americans and put millions out of work. The opioid epidemic has claimed more than 500,000 lives, while 2020 saw a record number of gun deaths. Climate change drove natural disasters costing a record $22 billion across the United States in 2020.
Few people would likely argue that they feel more secure today than they did on September 10, 2001. It is time to recalibrate our priorities to ensure that we are protecting all Americans effectively from the most significant threats to their health, safety, and well-being.
Defining our priorities
When government officials claim that national security demands a particular action, few interrogate how national security is defined. Is it the territorial integrity of the nation? The physical safety of its people? Or something less tangible, such as the preservation of constitutional rights, economic prosperity, or the institutions of democracy?
Absent a clear definition, the “national security” label is often affixed in ways that seem arbitrary, inconsistent, or politically driven. And yet the invocation automatically elevates the issue’s priority of the issue, triggering increased government attention and resources regardless of any objective measure of the threat’s magnitude.
After 9/11, “national security” became nearly synonymous with preventing attacks from groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and any individuals who identified with these groups’ stated goals. Congress practically threw money at counterterrorism efforts — by some estimates, the United States spent $2.8 trillion on counterterrorism between 2002 and 2017. In the meantime, white supremacist violence was often treated as a civil rights or violent crime problem, far lower on the government’s list of priorities, even though this type of terrorism kills more Americans most years than any other. Only recently has the government labeled it a national security threat, with the attendant resources and attention.
Moreover, terrorist acts of all kinds are prioritized over problems that are generally not viewed through a national security lens but are far more damaging to public health and safety. Terrorism is typically responsible for fewer than 100 fatalities a year — smaller than the number of Americans killed in bathtub accidents. In comparison, there are over 16,000 annual homicides, mostly by firearms. And the homicide numbers pale in comparison to estimates of American deaths due to environmental pollution, substandard healthcare, and poverty.
The “liberty versus security” paradigm
When something is labeled a “national security” threat, it is often assumed that the response will require extraordinary assertions of executive power and diminished protections for civil rights and civil liberties. This assumption has dominated our government’s response to 9/11. Yet it is rarely tested, as few counterterrorism tactics have been evaluated for effectiveness using scientific, evidence-based methods. Indeed, in many instances, there is reason to believe these heavy-handed responses have been ineffective or even harmful.
Examples abound. The United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq ostensibly to stem terrorism. Instead, the wars destabilized the regions, allowing new terrorist groups to flourish. Our 20-year military presence in Afghanistan neither crippled the Taliban nor gave the Afghan government the means to resist it, as recent events have shown. Tactics the military and CIA deployed in the name of counterterrorism — including kidnapping, indefinite detention, torture, and targeted killing — tarnished America’s reputation as a champion of human rights, damaged relationships with allies, and provided fodder for terrorist group recruitment.
At home, terrorism prevention efforts have included mass surveillance, bloated and inaccurate watchlists, and racial, religious, and ethnic profiling. The benefits of these approaches have been assumed rather than proven. In the few instances where a cost-benefit analysis was conducted, programs designed to identify terrorists were found to be ineffectual or counterproductive.
For instance, two independent reviews of the NSA’s program to collect Americans’ phone records in bulk concluded that it resulted in little-to-no counterterrorism benefit. A congressional review of fusion centers — information-sharing hubs that try to turn state and local police into intelligence agents — found that they are wasteful and do not produce valuable intelligence. Government reviews of domestic terrorist attacks, such as the mass shooting at Fort Hood, concluded that important threat information had been missed because it was buried in a flood of collected data.
At the same time, these initiatives have imposed heavy costs, not only on the nation’s treasury but on our democratic society and vulnerable communities. Islamophobic and nativist counterterrorism training materials and countering violent extremism programs have stigmatized American Muslims and immigrants. Ubiquitous “see something, say something” programs have trained Americans to be constantly suspicious of one another. These efforts have exacerbated existing divisions in the country and directly undermined the security of the communities they target.
Looking beyond national security
Going forward, we must take a holistic approach to protecting our country and our people—one that prioritizes the welfare of all Americans in accordance with an objective measurement of the threats we face. The billions wasted on military and intelligence programs that do not demonstrably make Americans safer need to be reinvested in evidence-based solutions to our nation’s biggest problems.
This new approach goes beyond shifting resources within the category of threats traditionally considered “national security” issues, or even bringing new categories under that umbrella. Instead, it situates national security threats — however designated — in the broader context of challenges to the health and resilience of our nation.
In his 1953 “Chance for Peace” speech, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the opportunity costs of war: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies … a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” His words are equally salient today.
Traditional “national security” issues — terrorism, cybersecurity threats, espionage — will continue to require serious attention and responses. But an evidence-based approach to our problems will almost certainly entail rightsizing our bloated national security establishment. Investing a fraction of the funds that were devoted to terrorism prevention over the last 20 years into the health, education, and welfare of the American people over the next 20 is the best way to build a society that is stronger and more secure.