Skip Navigation

The True Costs of ‘National Security’

Twenty years after 9/11, it’s time to set America’s priorities and spending based on reason instead of fear.

View the entire 9/11 at 20 series

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.