Conventional wisdom rarely budges, but sometimes the loose network of
heavyweight Washington opinion-makers shifts its collective thinking in a way that transforms national thinking on an issue. Such a shift may be underway on al-Qaeda and terrorism. Since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a broad consensus that al-Qaeda posed an existential threat. After the failed Flight 253 attack and the successful-but-misguided CIA bombing
(a wiser terrorist, analysts agree, would have fed the CIA
misinformation instead), many pundits have begun to question whether al-Qaeda still poses such a threat. More significantly, more now subscribe to the popular argument
that we over-react to terrorism, instilling the very fear and
panic that al-Qaeda seeks.
Of course, none of these ideas are particularly new. A handful of liberal commentators have long argued that we play into terrorists' hands by exaggerating the threat they pose. (We highlighted one noteworthy opinion last week.) But what was once a minority opinion may be hardening into the majority consensus. To be sure, many still disagree and will continue to do so. Recent opinions from some of political punditry's most influential writers indicate that the Bush-era conventional wisdom--that al-Qaeda is an unrivaled existential danger--may be on the wane.
- Don't Panic, Fear is Al-Qaeda's Real Goal Fareed Zakaria argues in Newsweek that over-reacting hands al-Qaeda a victory. "The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction. Its real aim is not to kill the hundreds of people directly targeted but to sow fear in the rest of the population. Terrorism is an unusual military tactic in that it depends on the response of the onlookers. If we are not terrorized, then the attack didn't work," he writes. "Overreacting to terrorist attacks plays into al-Qaeda's hands. It also provokes responses that are likely to be large-scale, expensive, ineffective and possibly counterproductive." Of the attack itself he writes, "The attempted bombing says more about al-Qaeda's weakened state than its strength."
- Al-Qaeda's Slow Demise Peter Beinart writes in Time of the long-accepted fears we've held since 2001, "The conventional wisdom was that the next terrorist attack would not merely equal 9/11 but be worse. In fact, terrorists have not pulled off another attack on the scale of 9/11 anywhere in the world. A 2007 study by Canada's Simon Fraser University found the global death toll from terrorist attacks has substantially decreased since 2001." He explain, "Al-Qaeda is not just under more pressure from the West. It's also under more pressure from fellow Muslims. [...] even in places like Pakistan and Yemen where al-Qaeda or its affiliates retain some organizational presence, it is much harder to train lots of would-be terrorists for complex, mass-casualty attacks."
- Fighting Terror Not Our Burden Thomas Friedman explains in the New York Times, "Yes, we need to fix our intelligence. Yes, we absolutely must live up to our own ideals, as President Obama is trying to do in banning torture and closing Guantánamo Bay. We can't let this "war on terrorism" consume us. We can't let our country become just The United States of Fighting Terrorism and nothing more. We are the people of July 4th -- not Sept. 11th." He says the real fight against terrorism must come from within Muslim societies, as it did when the father of the Flight 253 attacker reported his son's strange behavior.
- Agreement From Across Spectrum Nods of agreement are pouring in from all across the ideological spectrum, including many individuals and publications that once took a much harsher view of al-Qaeda as an existential threat. They include:
- The Huffington Post's Bob Cesca (liberal)
- The New Republic's Jonathan Chait (liberal hawk)
- Brad Delong (liberal economist)
- Foreign Policy's Daniel Drezner (moderate)
- Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch (liberal)
- The U.K. Spectator's Alex Massie (moderate)
- The National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru (conservative)
- The CATO Institute's Christopher Preble (libertarian)
- Marginal Revolution's Alex Tabarrok (libertarian economist)