Ten Years After 9/11, the Politics of Terrorism Have Quieted

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Andrew Burton / Getty Images

People walk underneath a New York Police Department mobile observation tower outside of Ground Zero on September 9, 2011 in New York City.

Residents of New York and Washington are fretting over reports that al-Qaeda may want to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, in its own deranged fashion. But our political system remains calm. And it’s worth pausing to reflect on that. After defining much of the decade since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism is no longer a central part of our politics. The ferocious debate over torture is largely over. The Guantanamo Bay detention remains open, but in a state of largely forgotten limbo. Aggressive surveillance continues at home and abroad, but civil libertarians have lost the political battle for now. The Obama Homeland Security department has ended the Bush administration’s color-coded terror alerts. We won’t be hearing any more election-influencing messages from Osama bin Laden.

The Obama presidency, to be sure, hasn’t been without its nasty arguments about terrorism. After the would-be underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab failed to bring down a Delta jet on Christmas Day 2009, politics broke out: Republicans were furious that the Obama team didn’t interrogate Abdulmutallab more aggressively, and treat him like an enemy combatant rather than arrest him as a criminal with Miranda Rights. Some Republicans even called for the resignation of Obama’s counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan. When the Obama White House proposed to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhhattan, all hell broke loose and the Obama team beat a hasty retreat. But such arguments have quieted. A steady drumbeat of drone strikes in Pakistan, the troop surge in Afghanistan, and of course the snuffing out of bin Laden have left Obama’s conservative critics with few avenues to attack his security credentials. Even Dick Cheney now praises Obama’s anti-terror policies (to the horror of the civil-liberties left).

The specter of another possible attack raises the question of how long that can last; it’s hard to believe, after all, that bitter politics wouldn’t quickly descend on the aftermath of a successful strike. The answer depends in part on what al Qaeda remains capable of doing. Some reports suggest the terror network is reeling. Others warn that it is gaining dangerous new strength in places like Yemen. But it doesn’t take a mastermind in a cave to create a mass panic. That can be accomplished by a “lone wolf,” an angry man with radical ideas–perhaps ones conveniently downloaded–acting on his own, a scenario that Obama officials worry about all the time.

Obama has been fortunate to dodge a handful of close calls thus far. Najibullah Zazi was arrested in September of 2009 just before he could bomb the New York subway. Saudi intelligence tipped us off to cargo bombs sent from Yemen last October. The powerful SUV bomb devices crafted by the would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, fizzled out in May of 2010. John Brennan fumes at the notion that only luck has kept us unscathed, arguing that the Obama team’s aggressive counter-terror policies have degraded al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit, train and equip operatives capable of successful strikes. But even if it’s the terrorists who need good luck now, they only need it once.

Here’s hoping this weekend passes uneventfully. If it doesn’t, we may yet see a return to the ferocious politics of terrorism and homeland security. But at this moment of endless, clownish hostility and incivility in Washington, it’s it’s worth noting the relative, and surprising, calm that has settled over what may be the most emotionally-charged issue in American politics.