Is Terrorism Really Not an Existential Threat?

   Posted by: Robert   in Uncategorized

In a recent interview with CNN, President Obama made some remarks concerning the ongong war on terrorism.  In response to a question about the importance of terrorism, he offered the following as part of his answer:

What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order. You know, the truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what’s the — you know, what’s essence of who we are.

His comment that terrorists are not “an existential threat to the United States or the world order” is, I believe, both true and misleading.  It is also entirely beside the point.  The threat posed by terrorists is somewhat unusual in world history and that type of language does not help to describe what they are doing at all.

The typical definition of an “existential threat” is that it is a literal threat to the continuation of a country.  The most recent “existential threat” to the United States is most likely the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and before them were the Axis powers of World War II.  Those threats carried with them a specific outcome: The removal of the United States from the world map.  For a country the size and strength of the United States, this level of threat can pretty much only be brought by other well funded nations.  In that sense, Obama is correct; it is highly unlikely that terrorists have the means to bring the United States to the same fate as the Ottoman Empire.

In a deeper sense, however, that analysis misses the point.  The goal of terrorism is not to directly overthrow a nation.  Rather, the goal of terrorism is to disrupt a nation and cause it, over time, to defeat itself.  This technique is especially powerful against a country like the United States, which is defined as much by its values as it is by its geographic area.  If terrorists are able to destroy those values, the end result is little different than destroying the country entirely.

For most of the past fourteen years, America’s values of freedom, personal liberty, and independence have been under general assault.  We are routinely inconvenienced in public places by the casual inspection of our personal belongings.  We have seen the aggression of our police forces increase to the point that a prank phone call can result in a military-style home invasion scenario.  We have been told to get used to a world in which the government has unfettered access to all of our private electronic data.  We are forced to suffer from these things, and more, all on the promise that they are somehow necessary to keep us from being obliterated.

The effects on our society can already be seen in our responses to otherwise innocuous situations.  To see how, one need only look at the reaction to The Interview, which would have been unceremoniously buried from the world if not for a major online campaign to bring the movie back to life.  In a nation which holds few values more deeply than ours does the freedom of speech, the scrapping of such a major film due to fear should be nearly unthinkable.  And yet, we found ourselves exactly there.

How much more would be necessary to render the US unrecognisable? It is difficult to say.  What is not so hard is to recognize that we are on a path leading away from those values which make America unique.  Avoiding that fate has nothing to do with the actions of our military; our essence is not diminished by the strategic decisions necessary to fight terrorism abroad.

Strong leadership and commitment to American values is our best defense against the real existential threat posed by global terror.  Our military, of course, serves an essential role in keeping the threat of foreign terrorism foreign.  But the real threat to America will not come from the damage inflicted by an extremist wearing an explosive vest, but rather from how we fear that someone else with a similar vest might step into our lives next.  The sacrifices we make to avoid that fear are the real injuries that could ultimately lead to our destruction.

This entry was posted on Monday, February 9th, 2015 at 7:00 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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