It is important to always keep in mind the seriousness of the terrorist threat. After all, on a single day less than a decade ago, they killed 3,000 people in New York and Washington. But it's even more important to avoid blowing the terrorist threat out of proportion. Since the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, we can defeat the aims of terrorists most effectively by simply remaining calm and realizing that the genuine power of Al Qaeda and its allies is actually rather small.
Unlike the Nazis during World War II or the Soviets during the Cold War, Al Qaeda and its affiliates do not pose any threat to the survival of the American republic. Yes, they can inflict casualties and cause economic damage, but they are not the mortal danger to our country that many people, either out of paranoia or for political purposes, have made them out to be. Vastly more Americans have been killed in car accidents than by terrorists over the last decade, but you don't see the government declaring a War On Automobiles.
The greatest danger terrorism presents to America is through causing misguided leaders in Washington to make extremely illogical and damaging decisions because of their inability to keep things in perspective. The invasion of Iraq would never have happened without the attacks of 9/11, so every American life lost and taxpayer dollar wasted in that misadventure should be seen as an Al Qaeda success. Osama bin Laden was probably delighted when he heard of the American invasion of Iraq.
We've created an entirely new department of the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security, in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Unsurprisingly, it has already emerged as a massive black hole into which billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent for little benefit to the average citizen. As Gene Healy of the Cato Institute points out in an excellent column, the subsequent attempts of Al Qaeda to launch terrorist attacks on the United States have failed not because of any outstanding work on the past of the American intelligence system, but through a combination of stupidity on the part of the terrorists and some astute observation and fast acting on the part of ordinary American citizens.
The Washington Post is currently running a series of articles, called Top Secret America, documenting the mass post-9/11 expansion of federal government entities designed to deal with the terrorist threat. It makes for disturbing reading. More than 1,200 government organizations and 1,900 private companies are involved in some way in counter-terrorism work, but no one seems to know exactly how much money is being spend, how many people are involved, or who is in charge of it all. This ridiculous situation was created directly by our collective overestimation of the terrorist threat.
Hyping up the terrorist threat allows politicians in Washington to cynically wrap themselves up in the American flag and look patriotic even as they push legislation that they know is not in the best interest of average American citizens. Rather than tackle problems that actually do pose a long-term threat to the American republic, like the national debt or the ever-increasing power of corporations over the lives of citizens, it better suits our so-called "leaders" in Washington to rant on and on about the evils of terrorism. This, in truth, suits the terrorists just fine, as it simply increases their power to terrorize. The fact of the matter is that, with or without intending to do so, the terrorists and the cynical politicians in Washington feed off of each other, and neither could survive without the other.
Terrorism is one problem among many faced by the United States in the modern age. We should approach it with the same logic and rationality with which we would approach any other problem, whether it's the fiscal crisis or finding a way to reduce deaths caused by traffic accidents. Unreasonably inflating the terrorist threat gives Al Qaeda and its allies a mystique they don't deserve, which simply increases the power of the terrorists and allows unscrupulous politicians in Washington to get off the hook for failing to address more important problems.