Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Ending the War on Terror

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, Januray 17, 2006 --  

As the Bush administration's "war on terror" enters its sixth calendar year, the time is long overdue to ask the question: When will the war be over? The four years and five months that have passed since September 11th, 2001 is a longer period than America spent fighting World War II (three years, eight months), the Korean War (three years, one month), the Civil War (four years), World War I (one year, six months), and far longer than the brief Gulf and Spanish-American wars. The question of when the war will be over is critical. The mantra "at a time of war" has been repeatedly used by the Bush administration to justify extra-constitutional power grabs including domestic eavesdropping without warrants, imprisonment of Americans without trials, and the detainment and abuse of foreign nationals at secret prisons around the world. All of these practices, which are controversial even in wartime, would be completely inexcusable at a time of peace. Thus, this begs a very practical question: When will we be at peace?

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon over four years ago, foreign terrorists have not made a single attack on American soil. Why is this?

There are two very different possibilities. The first, which the Bush administration would have you believe, is that all the administration's controversial actions have paid off by disrupting and preventing subsequent terror plots. This may be so, but it is impossible for anybody to know for sure. And even if a terrorist attack had been prevented, there is no way to tell if it had been because of domestic eavesdropping, imprisonment of Americans without trial, or abuse of foreigners in secret prisons, as opposed to other more benign policies.

The second very real possibility is that the absence of attacks on American soil since September 11th has nothing to do with America's newer security policies. Either existing security was adequate to prevent some plans, the somewhat limited capabilities of Islamic extremists didn't allow them to pull one off, or enough time simply hasn't passed since the last attacks.

It's true that it's been over four years since the last attacks in America. It's also true that there were no such attacks in the eight years before September 11th 2001.

The simple truth is that America's "war on terror" is not truly a war, at least not in the sense of previous wars. Since 2001, about 3000 Americans have been killed at home and 256 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda units1 - an average of about 800 deaths per year. Compare this to World War II, where 54,000 Americans died each year, Korea and Vietnam (11,000 and 4,700 American deaths each year, respectively) and World War I, where 36,000 Americans died each year.2 Clearly, fighting today's terrorists is not nearly as deadly as fighting any of these wars.

The terrorists who fight America are an ever-changing threat. Back in the 1980s, the threat was from secular Middle Easterners fighting for Palestinian, Marxist and nationalist causes. Back then, the terrorist enemy was the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), Libyan crackpot Moammar Qadhafi, and Abu Nidal. By the mid-90s, as these enemies had faded into obscurity, the new terrorist bugaboo was the domestic militia movement, as personified by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Even Osama bin Laden, the most notorious terrorist in history, has been fading into obscurity. For all practical purposes, he has been eclipsed by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And one day Zarqawi too will fade as a threat. But others will certainly follow.

Fighting terrorism is an ongoing effort that must be open-ended. In this sense, it is much like the "wars" on drugs and poverty. Thirty and forty years later, these "wars" are nowhere near victory. Like it or not, these are metaphorical wars that will never end, because they aren't really wars at all. President Bush seemed to acknowledge this last summer, when he briefly re-branded the "war on terror" the "struggle against violent extremism."3 Fair enough. Such a struggle could continue for decades. And while precedents exist for temporary limits on civil liberties during wartime, this is most certainly not the case for a long-term and open-ended "struggle." Let the struggle continue, but it has come time to declare and end to the war.


1., Operation Enduring Freedom Casualties, January 6, 2006

2. Information Please Almanac, America's Wars: U.S. Casualties and Veterans, 2005
      Vietnam: 47410 deaths / 10 years = 4700 per year
      Korea: 33741deaths / 3 years : 11,000 per year
      Civil War: 215000 deaths / 4 years = 54,000 per year
      World War I: 53402 deaths / 1.5 years = 36,000 per year
      World War II: 291557 deaths / 3.7 years = 80,000 per year

3. Christian Science Monitor, The 'rebranding' of the war on terror, July 28, 2005