My mom and I are excited. 24 is coming back. More importantly, Jack Bauer is coming back. As much as this feeds my desire for riveting television (don’t worry Homeland, there’s enough love to go around), part of me suspects this second coming of the ultimate counterterrorism show is all the more welcome for the reminder it provides of a time simpler than this one. Surely history looks better in retrospect (just look at George W. Bush’s current approval ratings), but perhaps it is safe to say that foreign and national security policy were more clear cut when our terror narrative was us versus them. American freedom is resented by radical Islamists who are plotting to hurt us… right? Unfortunately, the recent Boston Marathon bombings confirmed what we knew all along. There is no simple narrative and we certainly aren’t passive victims.
A certain amount of fatigue has set in, with studies showing that the American public accepts living with a base level of terrorist threat. Though we have been told Al Qaeda is significantly weakened, we also know that we will be fighting myriad terrorists groups for years to come. Political and philosophical debates will therefore continue; since 9/11 we have struggled with balancing security and civil liberties, with nationality proving to be a particularly tricky subject. Terrorism can be homegrown, and as we have seen, some of the counterterror techniques we deem admissible for foreign offenders, find us objecting when applied to the holders of blue passports. Boston was particularly sad in that the terrorists were not outsiders, and in the case of the younger bomber, not even overly radicalized. To say that today’s terror and counterterror pictures are complex is not helpful nor even that insightful, but then here we are, our policies fragmented and our narrative even more so.
Despite the nontraditional format, the War on Terror began with a narrative of traditional war. We had an enemy that was contained to a certain area of the world, with a leader that could be named. We would hunt him and his disciples relentlessly using our military. This storyline however, has outlived its reality. With Osama Bin Laden eliminated and Al Qaeda’s main branch significantly weakened, we are left not with a war but with an ongoing police challenge.
Meanwhile, the US is trying to apply the war narrative to our new task of fighting a much more fragmented enemy in various locations. Indeed, the Pentagon recently claimed that the threat of terrorism, including Al Qaeda, would continue for decades. Given this ongoing threat, the US would have the right to intervene anywhere it deemed necessary. War time assumptions like this one will challenge our resources as well as our security. Instead, the US must begin to embrace a new narrative, and in turn consistent, surgical, and strategic tactics that will allow for ongoing counterterrorism efforts without exacerbating the threat as time goes on. If nothing else, our counterterror policy should be first to do no harm. Latching on to our wartime narrative as we expand our counterterror efforts to new foes and new locations will only make things worse.
Instead, a police narrative (and therefore policies) would emphasize the role of law enforcement agencies at home and abroad. Coordinated intelligence gathering, evidence, and investigation would lead to arrests and criminal prosecutions. This would require the cooperation of foreign governments, which could aid in the struggle against terror. Either way, international law allows action to be taken if a government is uncooperative. Meanwhile, the use of drones is a perfect example of what it looks like to apply wartime tactics to our new police challenge. Drone warfare has allowed for progress on the counterterror front by eliminating key personalities. At the same time, the frequency and latitude with which the US conducts targeted killings are proving to do more harm than good. It should also be noted that civil liberties would be more likely to suffer under a wartime mentality and would predispose the US to foreign interventions.
Gone are the days of the narrative that made terrorism easy to understand (even if incomprehensible) and television easy to write. We must ensure that our short term choices do not lead to long term failure. We can be safe and principled both now and later, but this requires strategy, oversight, and even courage, traits that have been missing from Washington as of late. The US can improve by abandoning its wartime narrative, thus bringing its more controversial and fragmented policies in line with the country’s values to ensure that we are becoming smarter, safer and more consistent. The story we have to tell as a nation is more complex than the outset of the War on Terror, but in this way it is also more real. We cannot remain “at war” with the world and expect to see the threat of terrorism lessen. Still, as my mom says, it will be nice to have Jack Bauer around again, just for old time’s sake.