The Gap Between the Public’s and the Government’s View of the Terrorism Threat

By Jack Goldsmith
Thursday, November 25, 2010, 3:26 PM

Marc Thiessen has taken a lot of heat for this argument in the course of defending TSA screening procedures:

Can any of us imagine the debate we’ve had in recent weeks unfolding in the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001?  Can any of us imagine the debate we’ve had in recent weeks unfolding in the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001?  Would any of us have objected to the deployment of millimeter-wave scanners had the technology been available then?  The current uproar could happen only in a country that has begun to forget the horror of 9/11.

Conor Friedersdorf, for example, chides Thiessen for implying that

decisions are best made by putting ourselves in the sort of mindset we had just after watching Al Qaeda murder thousands of our fellow citizens, as if only the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack affords the clarity necessary to make smart policy.  Should time pass, affording emotional distance that puts the threat of terrorism in perspective, he sees it as a bad thing.  And an argument is apparently disqualified if on 09/12/2001 it would’ve proved unpopular.

I think Thiessen’s argument lends itself to a more charitable interpretation.

Friedersdorf is right that 9/12 is not the ideal perspective from which the public should judge the terrorist threat today.  We were angry and very afraid on that day, and while such emotions might, as Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule have argued, be useful in responding to the threat in the short term, they are not as useful nine years later, when we have more information about the threat and better defenses.  But Friedesdorf commits an error analogous to the one he accuses Thiessen of when he says that the public’s perception of the terror threat today reflects “emotional distance that puts the threat of terrorism in perspective.”  There is little reason to think that the public today has the terrorism threat “in perspective.”  Just as 9/11 sparked fears that probably led the public to overstate the threat, nearly a decade without a successful attack has almost certainly led the public to underestimate the seriousness of the threat it cannot see.  I cannot prove that the threat is greater than the public thinks, of course, but I bet that any senior national security official would say, based on much more information than the public has, that it is.  Indeed, that seems to be the premise underlying TSA’s refusal to back away from its unpopular screening procedures.  It is also one reason why Barack Obama has embraced so many counterterrorism policies of his predecessor.

In my book on this subject, I wrote that “the Terror Presidency’s most fundamental challenge is to establish adequate trust with the American people to enable the President to take the steps needed to fight an enemy that the public does not see and in some respects cannot comprehend.”  This is a challenge that Lincoln and Roosevelt did not face in their wars.  As I wrote:

This growing gap between the government’s view of the terror threat and what it thinks must be done to stop it, and the public’s view of the matter, is an enormous problem for the Terror Presidency and for the country.  “[P]ublic sentiment is everything, Abraham Lincoln once said.  “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”  When the public does not share a President’s assessment of a threat, the President has a hard time garnering the trust and support necessary to meet it.

This, I think, is what Thiessen meant when he said that “[t]he current uproar could happen only in a country that has begun to forget the horror of 9/11.”

What can be done about the growing gap between the public’s and the government’s assessment of the threat?  I my book I wrote:

The President must educate the public about the threat without unduly scaring it.  He must persuade the public of the need for appropriate steps to check the threat, explain his inevitable mistakes, and act with good judgment if an attack comes.  And he must convince the public that he is acting in good faith to protect us and is not acting at our expense to enhance or protect himself.

Alas, easier said than done.