America’s greatest risk: Terrorism or itself?


In Newsweek’s Special Edition – Issues 2010, Stephen Flynn writes about how America’s greatest risk is itself: the danger that the American government will overreact to the terror threat, and hence disrupt how America has been operating all this while.

Flynn argues that “the greatest peril today is not of an attack but the danger the country will overreact”. A terrorist attack might make huge headline news and cause much panic and trouble, but it seems like the government is in the meantime neglecting other disasters that could potentially claim as many, if not more, lives. For instance, hurricanes and earthquakes or even H1N1 and avian flu. The threat of terror certainly remains, but overreaction could cause huge trauma on top of the damage already done by the terrorists. The blockade of the US economy thanks to the grounding of all flights and closing of all borders post-911 would have accomplished exactly the economic damage that the terrorists aim to inflict upon America.

Flynn then proposes that the government should abandon the “muscular but unrealistic ‘protection at all costs’ approach”. Bush may have claimed that “terrorists need to get things right just once, the nation’s defenders have to be right 100% of the time”, but this is an “impossible standard” since no government in history has ever accomplished this. Singapore may be close to this, but only in recent history: one only needs to think back to the Konfrontasi period in the 1960s when the Indonesians struck the McDonald House to recall that Singapore has not been exactly immune to acts of terror (in particular, one inflicted by the government of an opposing force).

In essence, the government needs to get the citizens involved and not just be the big nanny and take charge if and when terror strikes. Flynn states that “terror works only if it convinces people they are vulnerable and powerless”, so if the government can give people ways to “address their vulnerabilities”, terrorism might not be as “terrifying” as perceived to be. The citizens should “share the responsibility for preparing the nation to cope with man-made and natural disasters”, so that people will become better able to “withstand, recover and adapt to catastrophic risks”.