Twenty years ago, the United States was intently focused on terrorism. The 9/11 attacks had killed 3,000 Americans and profoundly shaken our national sense of safety and security. President George W. Bush declared we were fighting a “war on terror” and vowed we would defeat terrorist organizations.
Since then, we have taken important steps to keep our country safe, and they have been largely effective. News coverage of terrorism is relatively rare, and I suspect most Americans wouldn’t put it at the top of their list of concerns. But terrorism remains a problem. In September, President Joe Biden signed an executive order continuing the state of emergency that President Bush first declared in 2001. Terrorism, Biden said, remains an “unusual and extraordinary threat.”
People can disagree over what is and isn’t terrorism, but a common definition is that it is the use of violence against civilians, usually by nongovernmental actors, to create fear in pursuit of political objectives. Counterterrorism, then, is political or military activity to prevent or thwart terrorism.
I believe the complete elimination of terrorism may be beyond our reach and impossible to achieve. Rather, our goal should be to try to reduce it is as much as possible, make it less disruptive and less harmful to our way of life and the security of our citizens.
After 9/11, we reorganized government, created the Department of Homeland Security and took steps to improve law-enforcement coordination and intelligence-sharing. We instituted safety precautions for airline travel and other forms of transportation. We enhanced border security. We sent our military to Afghanistan to ensure it would not be a safe haven for terrorists.
Thankfully, we haven’t faced another 9/11-style incident, but new threats have arisen. Jihadists and other extremist groups grew more adept at recruiting and radicalizing followers online. “Lone wolf” attacks claimed dozens of victims. Our growing reliance on computer systems made us more vulnerable to cyberattacks, a threat that we have struggled to keep up with.
Terrorist attacks on Americans and our allies continue. In August, as U.S. personnel were leaving Afghanistan, suicide bombings near the main airport killed about 170 people, including 13 American troops. A group called ISIS-K claimed responsibility. A U.S. Defense Department official said that ISIS-K, if unchecked, could have the ability to attack the U.S. and other nations within a year.
More recently, suicide bombers have targeted mosques and other targets across Afghanistan. Meanwhile, terrorist networks have spread from the Middle East to North Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, terrorizing civilians and destabilizing governments.
Terrorism keeps evolving, and our responses must adapt. The intelligence community says the most-urgent threats now come not from international networks but from homegrown and domestic violent extremists, including radical anti-government individuals and groups. It’s worth remembering that one of the deadliest attacks on American soil, the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was motivated by hatred of the federal government.
After 9/11, I served as vice chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, popularly known as the 9/11 Commission. Our work, while not perfect, resulted in many important changes that strengthened homeland security and made us safer.
Last month, commission members reunited at Indiana University to discuss whether America is safer today. One theme in our discussions was that we succeeded because we were bipartisan. In the words of member John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy, we were “five very active Republicans and five very active Democrats.” Yet we came together for the good of the country.
In today’s hyper-partisan environment, can Republicans and Democrats lay aside our differences to face up to terrorism and other threats? I believe that we can and that the security of our nation depends on it.
Lee Hamilton, 90, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.