30 Sep The War on Terror, 2001-08
I think it’s over. As is true with notational wars, it takes another, more serious threat to take care of the displacement. The end isn’t in the way of armistice or surrender. The wars on drugs and crime continue to be fought under more prosaic headings, but they no longer have a hold on the national imagination. And in the face of the financial crisis, that’s where we’re heading with the war on terror.
Too bad the market turmoil doesn’t lend itself to the “war” label in the absence of a clear adversary (“the war on short selling” doesn’t have much of a ring to it). But the analogy works at other levels. There are equivalent calls to rally round the flag in the face of what appears to be a genuine emergency. As Eric Posner points out, the kind of power that the White House is exercising (or trying to exercise) here looks like the power it was asserting on September 12.
I suppose it’s possible that we could keep fighting on two fronts, maintaining the war on terror and the crisis economic footing at the same time. That might work for real wars. But I don’t think it works for proverbial ones, which depend too much on collective psychology and which can thus be crowded out by competing concerns. And if any administration could pull off such a two-front conflict it certainly isn’t this one. We’re seeing now the first clear episode in which executive overreaching on the war on terror has depleted executive power in another context.
Of course, just because the war on terror is over doesn’t mean the terrorist threat has disappeared. Who knows, a global financial meltdown might make it even more serious (my instincts are otherwise). But anti-terror efforts don’t have to be prosecuted on a war footing. That’s how we did things pre-9/11; and I suspect that’s how we’ll do things going forward. Nor does it mean that we have resolved the host of constitutional questions that come with globalized enforcement activities. But they don’t have to be confronted in a war or quasi-war paradigm. We can start to shift back to our usual presumptions about the exercise of governmental power, which are probably adequate to the task.