Seven years ago, after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and President Bush’s subsequent declaration of war on “terror”, many argued that the world had changed forever. A “new normal” had arrived, in which Americans could no longer live in blithe ignorance to the rest of the world. A violent faction sought their destruction, and the United States had to acknowledge and respond to that fact. The years since have witnessed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, increased travel and shipping regulations, the Patriot Act and all the civil encroachments it sanctions, and the launching of two wars in the Middle East.
Most of these legal and political developments were supposed to be temporary. Yet seven years later, nobody talks of going back to the way things were. Government infringements on privacy are generally tolerated, as are the heightened security measures that hamper travel, add fees, and up taxes. Opposition to war is light—while many are weary, few are engaging in principled protest. Even the election process has failed to reinvigorate the national security discussion: on the latest Dow Jones Insight Tracker, which ranks the issues of the electoral campaign according to their coverage in the media, Terrorism was 9th, Iraq and Afghanistan respectively 13th and 14th. The “new normal”, it seems, has become commonplace, and the question of whether it is actually achieving the elimination of the threat responsible for 9/11 goes unasked.
What explains this complacency? Why aren’t Americans more opinionated about the war on terror, as they are typically opinionated about other things (and other wars in the past)?
The explanation for the present apathy towards national defense during a period of sustained military action is that Americans have no means of evaluating the war effort. Evaluation presupposes identification, yet for seven years we have been waging a war against “terror” without any clear awareness of our war objectives. We do not know who the enemy is, nor what would constitute victory against that enemy. This is why Americans cannot bring themselves to care about the war, while sensing that they ought to care.
Consider a survey of relevant facts. There have been no further organized terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11, but major bombings have occurred against other Western nations, such as those in Madrid and London. We have killed many Al Qaeda generals and the organization appears to have weakened, but Osama bin Laden remains at large. Iraq seems to be stabilizing, but 140,000 US troops remain to enforce that stability. Afghanistan seems to have a functional democratic government, but now the Taliban are making a comeback with the citizenry. A seemingly pro-US prime minister has been elected in Pakistan, but the Taliban are gaining in popularity there as well. Iran insists it is developing nuclear technology for peaceful use, but has test-fired new missiles capable of reaching Israel and refuses to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
What do these facts mean for America’s security? Are these disparate events, or are they somehow related to the war? Should they be taken as evidence of progress, or of retrogress? It is impossible to answer these questions without a concretely identified enemy and a unambiguous definition of victory.
Just as Americans cannot judge whether we are winning or losing the war without a standard of reference, so we cannot maintain vigor for action without recognizing the existence of an enemy we need to act against. We know implicitly that the threat of future terrorist attacks remains, yet because we have not named our enemies or explicitly evaluated our approach, we are able to embrace ignorance. We evade the deficiencies of our present course, placating fear with the appearance of something being done. The result is the present state of American apathy.
It is time to wake up. America should begin anew with the debate it should have had after 9/11/2001. The debate about who is the enemy, what would constitute victory against that enemy, and what is the best strategy to achieve that victory.
See the companion print edition article, “Evaluating the War Effort”.