The overreaction argument holds that al-Qaeda goaded the nation to curtail civil liberties and construct a monstrous homeland security apparatus while bungling into adventures abroad that birthed new enemies, sapped the American economy and distracted the nation from bigger problems.
There is some truth to each element of the critique. The nation stained itself with its treatment of foreign detainees and particularly its use of interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that had long been recognized as torture. By refusing to raise taxes to face the new reality, it endangered its fiscal health. The United States went to war in Iraq on the basis of faulty intelligence and was arrogantly ill-prepared for the responsibilities of occupation once Saddam Hussein fell. After initial successes in Afghanistan, it paid insufficient attention as the Taliban attempted a comeback. There’s a danger now that the nation will, once again, withdraw too soon from the challenges.
But al-Qaeda was a well-organized, capable organization intent on causing America mortal harm. It embodied an ideology that repelled most Muslims but was nonetheless attractive enough to permit continuous recruitment. And it was operating in an era when new technologies — nuclear, biological, chemical and cyber — allow small numbers of people to envision doing enormous harm to advanced and open democracies.
CONFRONTED with those realities, two administrations, one Republican and one Democratic, accepted the same strategic truths: The United States must protect itself at home as much as it sensibly can while taking the fight to its enemies overseas — and on both fronts, law enforcement and war are not enough. Abroad, aggression must be coupled with efforts to promote development and democracy in places that would otherwise breed terrorism. At home, vigilance must be coupled with tolerance and economic growth, so that the nation can remain both welcoming and strong. Altogether that is not an easy strategy for a democracy to sustain, because it is expensive, unproven and guaranteed to encounter setbacks. Given the scope of the challenge, the country should give itself some credit for what it has achieved.
There was in fact no large-scale assault on personal freedoms — no equivalent to the Supreme Court-sanctioned roundup of Japanese Americans, no repeat of the Red Scare infringements on freedom of speech and association. The Patriot Act enabled a modest, mostly court-supervised expansion of law enforcement vigilance. When there were excesses in the earliest, most panicked years, there was self-correction, with pushes from within the system (the Justice Department inspector general, for example), from members of Congress of both parties and from unfettered media and public interest groups. There have been hateful acts against Muslim Americans, but overall Americans accepted President George W. Bush’s early insistence that the U.S. war was not against Islam. And though it took too long, Congress and a new administration eventually made clear that torture is not acceptable.