Twelve years later and still overreacting to terrorists

Ted Koppel

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Ted Koppel writes that we have overreacted to terrorism, that we have done to ourselves what the terrorists could never have done. And of course I agree with him. I said the same thing two years ago.

Koppel’s commentary apparently was prompted by the closing of US embassies across North Africa and the Middle East, which many observers are now suggesting was an overreaction to a vague threat picked up from terrorist communications last week. The embassies and consulates, 20 in all, were closed. Not just put on alert or provided with increased security, but summarily shut down.

Coming as it does in the wake of the Benghazi attack and subsequent furor in Congress, the Obama administration’s “abundance of caution” in closing all those embassies might be as much about his political position here at home as it is about events abroad. We’ll probably never know.

But whatever the motive, the closings were an overreaction. And we’ve been overreacting since 9/11. We’ve spent a huge amount in blood and treasure overseas in those 12 years, much of it unnecessary and ill-advised. We can’t unspend it. We can’t recoup those losses nor the damage to our reputation. Nor will we likely undo what we’ve done here at home, as Koppel explains:

At home, the U.S. has constructed an antiterrorism enterprise so immense, so costly and so inexorably interwoven with the defense establishment, police and intelligence agencies, communications systems, and with social media, travel networks and their attendant security apparatus, that the idea of downsizing, let alone disbanding such a construct, is an exercise in futility.

Two years ago I closed by saying:

Stop the ongoing disproportionate overreaction to a one-time tragedy. Stop the navel-gazing and the rehashing and the what-ifs. Stop giving the terrorists the victory they couldn’t accomplish by themselves. Stop turning American against American, Christian against Muslim. Stop insisting we live in fear. Stop building Fortress America and get back to building America the Beautiful.

Perhaps I should have begun this by saying Koppell agrees with me. He closes with the following:

We have created an economy of fear, an industry of fear, a national psychology of fear. Al Qaeda could never have achieved that on its own. We have inflicted it on ourselves.

Over the coming years many more Americans will die in car crashes, of gunshot wounds inflicted by family members and by falling off ladders than from any attack by al Qaeda.

There is always the nightmare of terrorists acquiring and using a weapon of mass destruction. But nothing would give our terrorist enemies greater satisfaction than that we focus obsessively on that remote possibility, and restrict our lives and liberties accordingly.

Of course, he says it more eloquently, has a reputation to bolster his words, and speaks to a much wider audience.

Not that it matters. The die, it seems, is cast. And we are the poorer for it.

US Embassy in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Reuters)
US Embassy in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Reuters)

18 thoughts on “Twelve years later and still overreacting to terrorists

  1. Overreaction to terrorism? I couldn’t agree more. That said, however, I fault Koppel for failing to call out the vicious polemics over the Benghazi affair as a root cause of the current diplomatic closings. Diplomatic posts have always been vulnerable but terrorism gives this new significance. The shrill blame game the GOP has played over that attack leaves Obama no choice but to be cautious. Just imagine the furor from the right if more diplomats die, never mind that our armed forces are not police and are not designed to immediately respond to attacks on any of the scores of vulnerable posts. What ought to have happened after Benghazi was a coming together of the two parties, as happened after Pearl Harbor. But the new threat is not like the one in 1941 of course, so the terrorists are having their way with us and the GOP is playing right into their hands.

    To do their jobs properly, embassies and missions need ease of access to citizens where they are located but unfortunately many Arab nations have poor control over their own populations, Yemen of course being a prime example. But because of the Benghazi syndrome I foresee diplomatic posts being ever more heavily fortified around the world even as they become less and less effective. And, we as a people have allowed ourselves to become so frightened that we are scared of penknives on airplanes. I think it’s symbolic that the U.S. flag is so often at half staff these days. If the pols don’t get their s**t together, we might as well just keep it there permanently.

    1. To be fair, he did say, “It may be that an inadequate response to danger signals that resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi last September contributed to an overreaction in the current instance.” A single sentence. That was scarcely the prominence it deserved. Congress’s partisan gridlock centered on little else for months. Obama was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t when deciding to close the embassies.

      The decision was just another in a long line of overreactions driven by fearmongering hawks in Congress. It’s no wonder the people in the Middle East and North Africa hate us so much. Their people have paid and continue to pay a very high price for our fear and overreaction.

  2. What really scares me is the militarization of cops in general. They have inadequate training, may be psychologically unfit, and are way over-armed… it seems that their first response to anything is violence, because they feel invincible with their armored vest and their sub-machine guns.
    You’re much more likely to get harmed by your local police than from any terrorist actions…

    1. We get “bad cop” stories around here much, much too often. They seem like a bunch of trigger-happy John Wayne types with both guns and tasers. Trouble is, it’s not just the cops anymore. There a growing, very militaristic gun-nut segment of society these days, a segment that’s getting increasingly bellicose and belligerent. They scare me more than the cops because they don’t answer to anyone.

      As for the odds of dying at the hands of a terrorist, I found this odds chart in the Daily Kos:

      Odds of Dying

      1. Got your chart on email but not on the post, PT. Strange. Anyway, it’s a good one but I notice one glaring omission on the odds of causes of death: medical errors. According to the WHO, your chances of dying from medical error in a hospital is 1 in 300 which puts it a little below “falls” and ahead of “assault by firearm”. And of course way, way ahead of “terrorist attack” at 1 in 20 million.

        Oh yes, and one more omission: the odds of being offed by someone wielding a penknife on an airplane. Strange, I can’t seem to find any statistics on that one. I guess the TSA is on the job there.

    1. Yes, but based on your past comments, you seem to think the answer is for citizens to arm themselves and take over the cops’ job of enforcing the law. I think that’s the opposite extreme and equally repugnant.

      1. Actually I don’t.

        I do think the answer is to become more responsible for your own defense, but as I’ve said before, the only group that is legally allowed to instigate a confrontation and then murder it’s resisting objective is law enforcement.

        Coincidentally, I just received the following:

        Harlequin Novel, Updated…. 2011 Version:

        He grasped me firmly, but gently, just above my elbow and guided me into a room, his room. Then he quietly shut the door and we were alone. He approached me soundlessly, from behind, and spoke in a low, reassuring voice close to my ear. “Just relax.”

        Without warning, he reached down and I felt his strong, calloused hands start at my ankles, gently probing, and moving upward along my calves, slowly but steadily. My breath caught in my throat.

        I knew I should be afraid, but somehow I didn’t care. His touch was so experienced, so sure. When his hands moved up onto my thighs, I gave a slight shudder, and partly closed my eyes. My pulse was pounding. I felt his knowing fingers caress my abdomen, my ribcage. And then, as he cupped breasts in his hands, I inhaled sharply. Probing, searching, knowing what he wanted, he brought his hands to my shoulders, slid them down my tingling spine.

        Although I knew nothing about this man, I felt oddly trusting and expectant. This is a man, I thought. A man used to taking charge. A man not used to taking ‘No’ for an answer. A man who would tell me what he wanted. A man who would look into my soul and say………

        “Okay ma’am, you can board your flight now.”

        1. LOL. I was “this close” to trashing this comment. But it’s not really funny, is it? The TSA is scary with the power it has and the power its agents can and do abuse. It’s probably my #1 example of overreaction, but Koppel explains quite well why it will be with us forever.

        2. @ Ima,


          I remember when the fear-mongering began not long after 9/11. It was disclosed that airport-screener jobs were filled by people near the bottom of the food chain who had only a bare minimum of training. Can’t have that. People are getting on planes with penknives and tweezers for God’s sake! Condition ORANGE!

          Bush 43 and the massive bureaucracy that he created accordingly decided the job needed more authority and more respect. Hence, the TSA was created and given official uniforms and even badges. And government benefits. But, according to the news, members of the TSA a decade later are stealing passengers’ possessions out of their luggage, bending the rules when it suits them and sometimes falling asleep on the job. Hmm. Seems to me the only things that changed were the uniforms and the badges.

  3. Additional related comments from Koppel on Meet the Press, August 11:

    Look, fundamentally there are two sets of questions that apply in the war against terrorism. The one set of questions deals with the, “Where is it going to happen? What’s going to happen? When is it going to happen?” The other set of questions deals with, “What is it that our enemy, the terrorists, are trying to achieve?” What are they trying to induce us to do?

    Take a look at what’s been happening over the last week. With a conference call, Al Qaeda has effectively shut down 20 U.S. embassies around north Africa and the Middle East. We just had the president of Yemen here for a meeting with President Obama. He goes back feeling wonderful about his new relationship with the president; next thing the president does is says, in effect, “Sorry, but we don’t trust you Yemenis to protect our embassies.” So, in effect, we shut down our embassy. We had an emergency evacuation.

    What does that do to our relationship in the rest of north Africa? What does that do in our relationship in the Middle East, with all of these governments? The terrorists have achieved more with one phone call than we have achieved with all our response. …

    … And there will continue to be a specific threat, and there will continue to be terrorism, as there has been for as long as human history exists. Terrorism is simply the weapon by which the weak engage the strong. And what they do is they cause the strong – in this case, us – to overreact.

    We are the ones who went into Iraq and spent about $1.5 trillion doing it, losing, what, 4,500 young men and women, God knows how many tens of thousands of injured. We are the ones who have created a bureaucracy. What is T.S.A.? T.S.A. has about 57,000 people operating in T.S.A. Can you imagine a day, David, when we will ever again be without that bureaucracy?

  4. Both you and Koppel are quite correct in your assessments. I disagree slightly in your view of the future, though. I think it is possible that the U.S. will yet develop an intelligent strategy for dealing with terrorism, which by the way is quite different from the ancient varieties. The bad guys have access to advanced technologies they did’t possess a hundred or more years ago. To simply ignore them would be suicidal.

    1. I’m not suggesting we ignore them, but we’ve gone far beyond what’s necessary to defend ourselves. And like Koppel, I don’t believe the current anti-terrorism structure will ever be downsized or dismantled. I’ve no confidence at all that a government, having once seized power under whatever pretense, will ever willingly give it up.

... and that's my two cents