Do Governments need to take Extreme measures to fight Terrorism?

There has been a long standing debate about how states can best protect their citizens from terrorist violence.  Within these responses there is a scale that emerges between those who believe that there is no acceptable level of risk of violence and all means should be acceptable to ensure security, and those who believe that in order to preserve civil liberties some degree of security must be sacrificed.  It is easy to understand the political motivation of those who argue for extraordinary efforts to be made towards combating terrorism, especially in the aftermath of a major attack.  It is no coincidence that the Patriot Act, which gave the government wide ranging new tools to go after terrorism finances and to conduct electronic surveillance, was passed after the 9/11 attack.  This reflects the atmosphere after the attack, in the media Al Qaeda was portrayed as cowards and people living in caves, so the question was not how was Al Qaeda capable of such an attack, but what was the U.S. not doing that allowed it to happen.  In response, the U.S. instituted many changes that had the potential to infringe on civil liberties, such as more invasive security checks at airports and using targeted drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists, including American citizens.

Now that there has been about 13 years since the 9/11 attacks American opinion has changed.  In a poll this January, 70% of Americans say they shouldn’t have to give up privacy and freedom in order to be safe from terrorism.[1]  Terrorism is a reality that has been part of human history throughout time, and it is unlikely that it can be irradiated even by extraordinary measures.   The 9/11 attack provoked deep fear in the public and it was temporarily possible to decrease American’s civil liberties and engage in wars in the name of counter-terrorism, but American leaders should show resolve to not let the costs of counter-terror tactics outweigh the benefits, both in treasure and in the liberties that are part of American society.  In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, we should try to discover what we could have done better, whether it is more cooperation between intelligence agencies or increasing counter-terrorism capacity, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the simple fact crime or car accidents are consistently responsible for more deaths than terrorism each year, but do not provoke similarly unproportional responses.


[1] “Poll: Most Americans now oppose the NSA program,” USA Today, January 20, 2014.

About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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