After tragedy struck the Capitol last week, calls for policy change came swiftly. In response to the deadly mob that rampaged through the halls of Congress, many now advocate new anti-terrorism laws that would give the government powers at home that are usually only exercised abroad. Among these are the ability to work off of broader definitions of crimes like conspiracy or providing material support to organizations that commit violent acts.
Some see the war on terror as a model for what to do now. Political scientist Seth Masket asks us to imagine a world in which, after 9/11, members of Congress were “urging us to forget the attack in the name of unity.”
In that context, it’s important to look back at the policies adopted in the aftermath of 9/11 and their results. We can then hope for some estimation of how a domestic war on terror would be the same, and how it would be different.
Contrary to what Masket says, forgetting the 9/11 attack would have been preferable to what we actually did.
That day, the U.S. lost 2,996 lives. In response, it launched two wars that between them have killed more than twice as many American soldiers. Afghan and Iraqi deaths are difficult to track, but 500,000 is a low-end estimate. An economic perspective shows the post-9/11 wars to have cost at least two to three times more than the attack itself.
Such investments did not even have their intended effect on terrorism. The 10 years after 2001 saw more than twice as many terrorist deaths in the Middle East and North Africa than the previous 10 years. By 2018, al-Qaida had more than 20,000 men under arms globally, being much stronger than it was in 2001. ISIS and its affiliates have even more members. Terrorist and extremist organizations control territory throughout the Middle East and Africa, something that would have been all but unthinkable two decades ago.
A major reason for the increase in terrorism has been the chaos unleashed by American regime change wars. But we cannot not ignore the psychological dimension. In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush talked of terrorism as a global struggle, on par with the fights against communism and Nazism. While careful to explicitly say the U.S. was not at war with Islam itself, such his words rang hollow in the face of daily images of the U.S. killing Muslims abroad.
According to the American president himself, Osama bin Laden and his associates were not a ragtag bunch of criminals hiding in a remote part of the world; they were representatives of a broader struggle, the last ideology remaining at the end of history with the ability to challenge the world’s sole superpower.
This propaganda gift helped Islamic fundamentalism become a romantic ideal with appeal to young Muslims across the world.
A war on domestic terrorism would have a more local focus of course. While fighting QAnon and other American extremists won’t require foreign invasions, the struggle can still have pernicious consequences.
The Program on Extremism at George Washington University calls for expanding terrorism statutes to cover home grown ideologies in order to “bring moral equivalency” between foreign and domestic violent extremists. In other words, the hope is to elevate white supremacists and others in the same way we have Islamists.
While the individuals who stormed the Capitol seemed to have little in common ideologically besides their devotion to Trump, they are united by a sense of grievance against elites. White nationalists hate the federal government for its racial policies and feel they are fighting a culture war, Trumpist conservatives feel put upon and condescended to, and QAnon thinks it’s at war with a cabal of satanic pedophiles.
Some of these views overlap with attitudes expressed by many in the law enforcement community and even members of Congress. Just like the “war on terror” put conservative Muslims who posed no danger to the west under suspicion, similar policies domestically could potentially wreak havoc on the civil liberties of even more Americans, perhaps in the tens of millions. Bin Laden and other extremists came to represent “true Islam” in the minds of many Muslims after 9/11. In America, “true conservatism” may come to be associated with the most virulent resistance to liberal elites and the government. While censorship can certainly work to purge some ideas from public life, the effect of a wholesale effort to do so would likely inflame tribal passions beyond what we have already seen in recent decades.
What should the government do instead? There is no easy answer to what has gone wrong with the American right, any more than there was with regards to the most extreme forms of Islam. Some of the activities of the Capitol Hill attack were being planned and discussed on internet forums and social media, and intelligence agencies seem to have missed the chatter or failed to act on it. Beyond doing a better job on intelligence and enforcing laws already on the books, we should apply the right lessons of the response to 9/11 going forward. The most obvious of these is to avoid an overreaction that has the potential to do much more damage than the problem itself.
There are some indications that the forces unleashed by Trump will gradually subside now that he has left office and lost access to social media. Republicans may become more convinced that a change is necessary given that Trump supporters have threatened their lives, and polling indicates that many Americans are disgusted with what they have recently seen. If Republicans continue down the same path, a few consecutive election losses have a way of sobering a party up.
At home and abroad, benign neglect is often the least bad policy option, even if emotionally unsatisfying.