How to Defeat Terrorism, In 3 Easy Lessons

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  1. Don’t be terrified.
  2. Don’t panic.
  3. Don’t overreact.

Everything else is beside the point.

According to multiple reports, in the wake of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, key figures in the Bush administration failed on all 3 counts.  They were terrified by the attacks — terrified for the nation’s safety, and terrified of the political consequences for them, personally, if there were more attacks.  So they panicked.  Having panicked, they overreacted in almost every dimension of their response.

Frankly, that’s perfectly understandable.  They were, after all, confronted with something abjectly terrifying.

Where they failed was in being afraid to admit they had overreacted.  As evidence mounted that they were responding wrongly, all they could do was insist that they weren’t, and “prove” it by doubling down — pushing ever further in the wrong direction.

That’s why Dick Cheney is behaving the way he is, even now.  He can’t do otherwise.  To do otherwise would be to admit he was wrong, which would be to admit he overreacted in the first place, which would be to admit he panicked, which would be to admit he was terrified by 9/11 and the anthrax attacks, which would be to admit the terrorists got the better of him.  He’s a man who lives in fear not just of people realizing that, but of admitting it to himself.

Besides, in raw political terms, Cheney — and the entire GOP — can’t afford to admit they panicked.  (And they’re certainly never going to admit that, having done so, they’ve been afraid to admit it.  Because, while the first reaction is understandable and forgivable, the second is naked cowardice.) The tough guy is who they are [supposed to be].  It’s their whole identity.  It’s the thing the GOP has staked its entire political life to, ever since the Cold War.  Without it, they can’t win.

To badly paraphrase Justice Cardozo (I think), the nuanced, provisional ideas of one generation become the black-and-white, absolute dogmas of the next.  The panicked overreactions of the early days and months after 9/11 have hardened into absolute dogmas.

Unfortunately for the nation, we’re never going to defeat any terrorists until we stop perpetuating those overreactions; and, the next time they attack, refuse to repeat the mistake.  That’s going to be hard to do as a nation when half our political system has invested its entire identity in overreacting.

Update (3/31/2009 7:23pm):

Matt Yglesias quotes COIN expert Andrew Exum on one of the issues that my own efforts to think through led to the ideas in this post.  As Exum puts it:

Even if we succeed in spreading effective governance to southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan, are we then prepared to go to wherever the transnational terror groups relocate?

You can’t defeat terror groups by invading territory.  They’ll just move.  You can only defeat them by refusing to play their game — don’t be terrified, don’t panic, don’t overreact.  (This also, btw, calls attention to why war — as in “global war on terror” — is the wrong way think about this problem.  This is an organized transnational crime problem, and should be dealt with as such.)

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2 Responses to “How to Defeat Terrorism, In 3 Easy Lessons”

  1. Howard Johnson is right about Gabby Johnson being right! « Hungry Hungry Hippos Says:

    […] Dude, it’s been out for over a year.), comes to the conclusion that Vice President Cheney panicked in the aftermath of 9/11.  Well, they use the passive  “unnerved” rather than the […]

  2. Dick Cheney: Still a Coward « Hungry Hungry Hippos Says:

    […] terrorists attacked this country in the first year of his co-presidency with Mr. Bush, Dick Cheney responded just the way they had hoped: he was terrified, he panicked, and he overreacted.  He’s been trying to defend his behavior […]

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