The "war on terror" isn't even a war
Where does the War on Terror rank amongst the other great wars of American history?
Ellis is asking how grave a threat to national security terrorism is compared to other crises during which the government has evoked special powers:
My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.
Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.
Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so. [NYT]
I agree with Ellis's overall assessment: the threat of terrorist attacks isn't that big a deal compared to many of the other national security crises that the U.S. has endured during the course of its history.
However, the most important question is not the threat level, per se, but whether we are at war. If we are indeed at war, the state has a qualitatively different set of options, regardless the risks involved.
The Bush administration is trying to justify extraordinary expansion of executive power not only because terrorists might hurt us (like hurricanes, or bird flu), but because we are literally at war.
War powers aren't justified simply as a function of the threat posed by the enemy. A war fought for convenience, greed, or strategic gain is just as much a candidate for war powers as a war fought to defend against a threat to American citizens or their Republic. A war isn't just a cause, it's a project. War powers are tools for doing a job, irrespective of the reasons for embarking on the endeavor in the first place.
The fact is that we're not at war on terrorism, let alone against terror. Terrorism is a strategy. Actually, it's a normative assessment of a family of tactics. In the current climate "terrorism" refers to any political violence the speaker doesn't like.
We aren't at war with terrorism and we never have been. We were at war with Iraq, and now we're fighting the Iraqi insurgency.
Sure, we're engaged in a global struggle against terrorism by Islamic extremists. ("GSAVE" is much closer to the truth that "GWOT".) But we can't even declare war on Al Qaeda, though the use of force against them has been authorized. We can't declare war against Al Qaeda for the same reason that we can't declare war against Columbia drug cartel or the mafia. These groups, however nefarious, aren't states. If we were to destroy these organizations, new groups with the same mission would take their place.
War is a metaphor for any all-out struggle against a serious problem: poverty, cancer, drugs, terrorism... Sometimes we use military hardware and tactics to further that struggle. Sometimes we even fight real wars as part of our strategy.
The idea that the so-called war on terror justifies dramatic expansion of presidential power is extremely dangerous. Terrorism is never going to go away. If we accept that we are literally at war with terror, we are signing on to perpetual war for perpetual peace.