Are we safer after 9/11?

Significant improvements have been made in the past 10 years but efforts need to be focused on real threats

Increased airport security worldwide has contributed to longer lines at airports since the 9/11 attacks.
Increased airport security worldwide has contributed to longer lines at airports since the 9/11 attacks.
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Since the terrorist attacks committed on Sept. 11, 2001, our perception of security has changed in many ways.

Have the lessons we learned made us safer? When are we safe? Safe from what?

Post-9/11, we’re accustomed to the risk of terror being constantly indicated on a multi-colour chart, with red high and green low — much like we are used to being informed of the fire risks in national parks. The warning of potential terrorist attacks has become a daily part of life.

With the lessons learned since 9/11, if we define security as the absence of violence, we can say: “Yes, we are safer.” Implementing attacks like those committed on 9/11 is more difficult.

In Canada, interagency cooperation between the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), RCMP, local police and other security institutions has been improved following Air India Report recommendations and lessons learned in the past. Cooperation with security institutions outside Canada also intensified.

Physical upgrades such as cockpit security and tight passenger controls in the Air Traffic industry have made the hijacking of passenger aircraft much more challenging. Border security measures have also tightened. These significant improvements make us safer.

But safer from what? They make us safer from the kinds of attacks we have seen so far and can therefore prepare for.

But as security forces adapt to new forms of terrorism, terrorists invent new forms of attacks. These are difficult to anticipate and they specifically aim at bypassing our security systems. Despite plans for further attacks, evident in Bin Laden’s documents, the survivors of 9/11 have mourned in peace. We have reason to hope this demonstrates that Al Qaeda is weaker today.

But should the absence of violence include freedom from fear? It’s a question that we asked during the nuclear confrontation of the Cold War and stopped asking for about a decade.

If we should expect to be free of fear, we’re much less safe than before 9/11. We’re more aware of the risks, and the bombings in London and Madrid show that our concern is justified. Our security institutions deserve high praise for preventing more incidents than we will ever know, but the fear remains.

There have always been people with an interest in emphasizing our natural fears: sometimes politicians rallying to the flag, sometimes journalists looking for drama, sometimes those who benefit from the millions spent on security.

There will always be people to tell us how serious a threat we face. But is our awareness of danger being raised unnecessarily by those with an interest in fear? Are risks being sold to us as threats?

Unfortunately, we have learned that not only aircraft can be hijacked. The concept of national security is vulnerable to hijacking. Political and economic interests are served in the name of national security. These interests not only waste tax money but also leave us with a false sense of security, weaken our position and consequently make us less safe than we were before 9/11.

We need to differentiate between risks and threats. We cannot prevent every potential risk from materializing into an attack, and we don’t need to.

We need to concentrate on the existing threats. Creating unnecessary fear weakens our defense against terrorist attacks as sparse financial resources are directed to projects that don’t necessarily increase our security.

Constant terror threat warnings lose their effect as we take them less seriously. Those engaged in dramatizing the risks of terrorist attacks have made us less safe.

Contrary to our intentions, some of our strategies in the “war on terror” have also made us less safe. Torture, inhumane conditions and unfair detention in prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have radicalized many ordinary citizens in the Muslim World.

We have contributed to a perception of the West that is fuelled by horrific experiences motivating revenge. In addition, a significantly increasing divide between the extremely poor and the wealthy and the many double standards in the international political system have increased the animosities.

What we may accept as necessary “collateral damage” in our wars sends ripples of shock through grieving families — far more families than are mourning at ground zero. Radicalization and terrorist recruitment are the byproducts of our bombs on villages where not everyone was an enemy. To reduce our casualties in distant wars, we may be sowing the seeds of hate in those who will attack our families in the future.

The latest budget cuts show us that our level of effort is unsustainable. How can we meet the challenge with decreasing budgets and high costs for natural catastrophes we see as the result of climate change, to maintain our level of security and adapt to new security challenges?

Yes, significant improvements have been introduced, but in order to really be safer we need to concentrate our efforts on the real threats to national security and avoid the political use of fear to follow hidden agendas.

Anthony Seaboyer is a researcher at the Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy (CIDP) and director of the Centre for Security, Armed Forces and Society (CSAFS) at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Elizabeth Kellett, ArtSci ’10, is a junior fellow at the Centre for Security, Armed Forces and Society (CSAFS).

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