August 11, 2005 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Another Terrorist Timeout

It's time for another timeout in Washington.

Last year, the greatest threat to American security was not the terrorists, but rank partisanship. Public hearings by the 9/11 commission coincided with the summer presidential campaign season. As the hearings progressed, many politicians and pundits seemed more interested in playing the blame-game than in making America safer.

For a time, the commission's credibility appeared in jeopardy. If the members had produced a highly partisan report, it would have been dismissed as election-year posturing. Congress might not have enacted a far-reaching intelligence-reform bill. By remaining scrupulously non-political and offering sober recommendations aimed more at fighting terrorism than fighting for votes, they did much to lower Washington's temperature.

This year, the greatest security threat is stupidity -- knee-jerk governmental reactions that would punish us for wanting to live in an open society and fail to stop al Qaeda and al Qaeda-wannabe's. Here's a list of some of the dumb ideas proposed in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks:

1. Racial, ethnic and religious profiling. Terrorists are mostly men, Muslims and immigrants or foreign visitors, so some argue that we should focus our counterterrorism efforts on them. That proposal fails for a couple of reasons. First, any program based on racial profiling likely wouldn't pass constitutional muster. Second, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups aren't morons. They know that recruiting operatives that don't fit the profile is key to infiltrating agents into the United States. Terrorist groups, according to a report by Robert Leiken at the Nixon Center, have been seeking to recruit non-Arab Europeans, including women. Racial profiling is security's equivalent of the generals planning to fight the last war.

2. Criminalize free speech. Religious leaders that practice hate speech and glorify suicide have created a fertile environment for terrorism. The easy answer for some is to make hate a crime and start deporting or jailing extremists. But limiting free speech will do more to destroy a free society than to stop terrorists. Besides, there are already laws on the books that distinguish legitimate free speech from speech that provides material support for terrorists.

The problem is not a lack of laws. It's a lack of political will to confront terrorist lies in the communities where they're being spread. The war of ideas must be fought and won in the realm of ideas, not with prisons and expulsion orders.

3. Child-proof America. Terrorists go after the most vulnerable targets, such as public transit systems. One solution is to spend billions making them more secure. Trouble is, the terrorists will simply switch to another vulnerable target, perhaps a schoolyard or a shopping mall. Checkbook security isn't the answer. Better to invest in counterterrorism efforts that can stop the terrorists before they get to the attack stage and to ask state and local government and the private sector to do reasonable things to enhance security.

Proposals that would spend money to create the illusion of safety, curb free speech or curtail our liberties are simply unworthy of us.

After winning the Cold War, you would think that America and its allies would have a little more self-confidence in their capacity to defeat the threat of terrorism. Then as now, we are a strong, free nation. The last thing we should do is adopt dumb ideas that weaken ourselves in pursuit of defeating the enemy.

At the onset of the Cold War, diplomat George Kennan wrote, "Much depends on [the] health and vigor of our own society … We must have the courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger that can befall us … is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping."

In reauthorizing the Patriot Act, undertaking intelligence reform, reorganizating the Department of Homeland Security, and undertaking comprehensive border and immigration security reform, Congress and the administration are, by and large, focusing on the right priorities. These are the kinds of initiatives that follow Kennan's prescription -- efforts that will defeat the terrorists without undermining who we are.


James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., co-author of "Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom," is a senior research fellow for national security and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation (

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire