Of course, the greatest misplaced priority associated with our intelligence program is the notion that stopping terrorists is worth undercutting the basic privacy rights of U.S. citizens and our allies. Terror threats are limited, fleeting, and literally impossible to fully contain -- all reasons that should have never been allowed to undercut those other, enduring principles. It is important we are able to see and acknowledge this point, even when a current threat is looming.
However, many in Washington are already trying to use this asserted threat to justify the intelligence programs exposed by Snowden, as well as our other over-reactions to terrorism. Were there to be another attack, they would surely do likewise. There is a pattern here that we need to view dispassionately rather than with fear. The Patriot Act was an over-reaction. Building up the NSA surveillance programs was an over-reaction. And, it must be said, shutting down scores of U.S. diplomatic facilities is an over-reaction. We must protect our diplomats. But we also must avoid appearing to be cowed by terrorists (or those who would engage in political sniping back at home). And, of course, there are other choices than the wholesale closing of a massive cross-section of America's diplomatic capacity across the Islamic world.
Other countries, other embassies, and other facilities are at constant risk of attack. Yet they choose to remain open. They harden defenses. They restructure facilities. They take lower-key precautions. And they make these choices to avoid producing panic and also because shutting down scores of facilities only makes other facilities the target.
This brings us to the ultimate mistaken assumption -- that it is actually possible to win a war on terror. We can suffer defeats, to be sure. These come when we pursue the wrong targets, employ the wrong tactics, and fail to assess risks wisely. Indeed, we can lose such a war if we let terrorists set our policies, drain our resources, and mesmerize us with a shadow game that never ends, one that offers only illusory victories and leaves us distracted from our real needs and priorities, and the many greater threats we face.
No, the only way to avoid losing such a war is to avoid framing it as such. We must protect ourselves -- but against not just the terrorists but ourselves and our terror. Cool perspective is more effective than all the drones, special ops, and surveillance programs we can muster. That is not to say we shouldn't be on guard or that we shouldn't strike hard against demonstrated threats and those who have conducted past attacks. We must. But we also need to get a grip -- to understand what elements of this we need to be prepared to deal with on a continuing basis, to prepare accordingly, and to focus on the real risks rather than simply those that cause the biggest hue and cry among the hysterics on Capitol Hill and in the American media.