Note: this piece was originally published in The Washington Post, and was co-written by Checks & Balances member Carrie Cordero.
It was soon after 9/11 that Americans were first exhorted not to let the devastating attacks of that day interfere with ordinary life. Within weeks, President George W. Bush was encouraging Americans “to go about their lives, to fly on airplanes, to travel, to go to work.” He was right: Once the federal government felt confident that no second wave of al-Qaeda attacks was imminent, it was critical to America’s economy, society and collective psychology not to let the tragedy bring a superpower to a standstill. Showing national resilience in the face of terrorist attacks actually counters the effectiveness of those attacks: Terrorism is inherently a strategy of provocation, and standing tough afterward actually thwarts terrorists’ very objectives. We’ve both worked on counterterrorism in the U.S. government — one in the year before and decade after 9/11 at the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the other for much of the last decade at the Justice Department and National Security Council — and we both believe strongly in the value of building resilience in the face of terrorism.
Throughout the Bush and Obama presidencies, Americans developed an admirable ability to recover from terrorism quickly and go about our lives. Even after international and domestic terrorist attacks in the past decade such as in Boston, San Bernardino, Calif., Orlando, Pittsburgh and El Paso, most Americans generally didn’t demand disproportionate reactions, whether in the form of enhanced overseas military engagement or substantial civil liberties restrictions at home. We might not yet have our British brethren’s full ability to “keep calm and carry on,” but we’ve learned something in two decades. If anything, coping with international terrorism has led the United States — both as a policy matter and as a societal matter — to be slow to adapt to an evolving national security threat environment in which domestic terrorism, great-power competition, biological threats and other emerging issues demand greater attention.