In the wake of yet another in a string of 40 terrorist panics that came to naught, two terrorism experts have posts commenting on crying wolf. Ali Soufan’s consultant firm treats the over-response to the Fourth of July warnings as justifiable, though notes the general sense of unease serves ISIL’s purpose.
While calls for the public to remain vigilant are common sense, they need not become an incessant drumbeat, as fears of lone wolf and known wolf attackers can too easily give way to cries of wolf that are taxing and counterproductive.
That neither false alarm was terrorism related did little to blunt the worry that both could have been; indeed both were assumed to have been terrorism by a public told to expect the worst but not told why. The spectacle of massive law enforcement responses, which make sense given the history of ill-advised moderation and hesitation during active shooter situations, plays into the propaganda playbook of the Islamic State. Unspecific warnings to be on the lookout for an attack further add to the false but easily repeated sense that the national security situation is out of control. The nation is actually relatively safe, thanks to a decade of intense efforts by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. No one feels safe, however, given the attacks, tweets, and taunts of a terrorist group long active in Iraq and now in Syria.
This unease stems in part from the way the Islamic State has changed the landscape of terrorism, moving away from spectacular attacks that topple a society’s skyscrapers to banal but brutal attacks that destroy a society’s sense of security. A sound misheard as a gunshot at the premier military hospital in the United States can be assumed to be the start of a Tunisia-style terror attack precisely because such an attack is so easy to pull off. Shooting tourists on a beach in Tunisia or in an office in Paris means no one feels safe, even if no one is actually threatened beforehand.
The group will gladly accept people crying wolf in its name as much as it accepts lone wolves acting in its name. A persistent level of perceived threat allows this approach to succeed where it should fail.
Peter Bergen weighs the costs of repeated panics more critically.
Since there was virtually no downside for U.S. national security officials to issue terrorism alerts, the American public has been regularly warned that some kind of serious terrorist attack is in the offing.
Crying wolf, however, does have repercussions. There are significant costs to these terror alerts, both economic and social.
This weekend, local governments and businesses spent significant sums putting temporary security upgrades in place. Some Americans made alternative vacation plans. In the past, many flights have been canceled and commerce impeded.
More fundamentally, the issuing of alerts undermines the essential purpose of counterterrorism — to prevent terrorist attacks, yes, but also to guarantee American citizens’ right to live outside the realm of fear that terrorists want to impose on us. Inflated, ineffectual warnings do not serve the purpose of effective counterterrorism; they contradict it.
We seem to have inverted President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous admonition “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” so that our motto today is closer to “We will continually live in a state of self-imposed fear.”
When this happens, we are doing the job of terrorists for them.
I’d add two things.
First, don’t forget that sustained panics has helped the security state demand new authorities in the past, as when in 2004 an election year threat the CIA early discounted nevertheless served as the excuse to restart torture and the dragnet. Jim Comey was a part of that (though Comey seems to have served more as a willful dupe to the CIA and Cheney types than the instigator). So it should stand as a warning, especially when Comey is using the ISIL threat to demand encryption back doors.
But this discussion also needs some perspective. After all, as the national security state was panicking over loud noises, there was a slew of gun violence in Chicago.
After a relatively quiet start to the Fourth of July weekend in Chicago, a burst of gun violence overnight left three dead and 27 people wounded in just eight hours, including a 7-year-old boy killed after returning from a celebration.
“It’s crazy,” said Vedia Hailey, the grandmother of the boy, Amari Brown. “Who would shoot a 7-year-old in the chest? Who would do that to a baby? When is it going to stop?”
From 9:20 p.m Saturday until 4:45 a.m. Sunday, 30 people were shot across Chicago, three of them fatally, including Amari.
Even when casualties from senseless gun violence rival that of any terror attack in the US since 9/11, CNN doesn’t run it 24/7, nor do people seem all that concerned about the destruction of Chicago’s South Side’s sense of security.
Moreover, the costs go far beyond those Bergen lays out.
After all, if national security remains defined as counterterrorism (or maybe gets expanded to include hackers), we will ignore two bigger threats to our country and the globe: climate change and bankster havoc.
Every time we spend a holiday weekend hiding from manufactured fears, we will lose focus on bigger threats.
Over the weekend we celebrated the brave audacity of a bunch of men who dared to take risks to demand their autonomy (while denying it to their non-white and female chattel). Our country has since allowed itself to be dominated by fears.