Civil Liberties, Counterterrorism, and Intelligence

What's Left to Be Done

The danger of global Islamist terrorism is greatly reduced from what it was on 9/11. The core al Qaeda organization in Pakistan is probably down to no more than a few hundred reliable operatives. Numerous plots against the homeland have been foiled. The risk of a catastrophic terrorist attack is significantly lower than it was on 9/11.

But the risk is not zero. An attack could still happen at any time. Like the attempted destruction of an airliner on Christmas Day, 2009, there have been other recent attempts -- including a 2009 plan to bomb New York City subways and the attempt to explode a car bomb in New York City's Times Square just last year. Any attack will be publicized sensationally.

Which leads to what would be best called a paradox of adjustment. Any president who downplays the danger, trying to right-size the enemy and put the danger into a more normal proportion, invites humiliation if there is, in fact, an attack. He doesn't dare boast about success. If there is no attack, the reassurance invites an unwanted dulling of concern. The paradox of adjustment is that efforts to right-size, to normalize, to reduce the risk seem . . . too risky.

Yet the reality is that the most serious threats today are posed by a relatively tiny number of people, fewer in number and less well organized than the crew organized for production of any one of Hollywood's larger films. A handful of deluded zealots derive most of their power not from their strength or their ideals. They get their power from us -- from our society and our culture. To quote one of the former 9/11 Commission members, Richard Ben-Veniste, perhaps Americans might best "combat terrorists by taking away the terror."

The paradox is genuine, and the death of Bin Laden is one of those potentially catalytic moments that open minds to a fresh narrative. Adjustment may just be a gradual process. To borrow the slogan of a recently revived British government poster from World War II, "Keep calm and carry on." Contemporary societies will remain vulnerable to the abilities of even a few people to do terribly disruptive things. That feature of our age is not unique to the danger posed by Islamist fanatics.

A principal function of twenty-first-century government will be to manage a process of healthy adjustment to the kinds of risks that are endemic to this generation, developing systemic defenses to systemic threats.

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PHILIP D. ZELIKOW served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission and is now the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

Adapted from the Afterword: "The Twilight War" by Philip Zelikow from THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT: The Attack from Planning to Aftermath. Afterword copyright (c) 2011 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company.