In responding to the attempted bombing of an airliner on Christmas Day, Sen. Dianne Feinstein voiced the feelings of many when she said that to prevent such situations, "I'd rather…overreact than underreact." This now appears to be the consensus view in Washington, but it is quite wrong. In fact, precisely the opposite is true. The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction. Its real aim is not to kill the hundreds of people directly targeted but to sow fear in the rest of the population. Terrorism is an unusual military tactic in that it depends on the response of the onlookers. If we are not terrorized, then the attack didn't work. Alas, this one worked very well.
The attempted bombing says more about Al Qaeda's weakened state than its strength. In the eight years before 9/11, Al Qaeda was able to launch large-scale terrorist attacks on several continents. It targeted important symbols of American power—embassies in Africa; a naval destroyer, the USS Cole; and, of course, the World Trade Center. The operations were complex—a simultaneous bombing of two embassies in different countries—and involved dozens of people of different nationalities who trained around the world, moved significant sums of money around, and coordinated their efforts over months, sometimes years. And every attack succeeded.
On Christmas a Qaeda affiliate launched an operation using one person, with no special target, and a failed technique tried eight years ago by "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. The plot seems to have been an opportunity that the group seized rather than the result of a well-considered strategic plan. A Nigerian fanatic with (what appeared to be) a clean background volunteered for service; he was wired up with a makeshift explosive and put on a plane. His mission failed entirely, killing not a single person. The suicide bomber was not even able to commit suicide. But Al Qaeda succeeded in its real aim, which was to throw the American system into turmoil. That's why the terror group proudly boasted about the success of its mission.
Is there some sensible reaction between panic and passivity? Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission and later a senior State Department official in the Bush administration, suggests that we should try to analyze failures in homeland security the way we do airplane catastrophes. When an airliner suffers an accident, major or minor, the National Transportation Safety Board convenes a group of nonpartisan experts who calmly and methodically examine what went wrong and then issue a set of recommendations to improve the situation. "We approach airline security with the understanding that it's a complex problem, that we have a pretty good system, but that there will be failures—caused by human beings, technology, or other factors. The point is to constantly fix what's broken and keep improving the design and execution," says Zelikow.
Imagine if that were the process after a lapse in homeland security. The public would know that any attack, successful or not, would trigger an automatic, serious process to analyze the problem and fix it. Politicians might find it harder to use every such event for political advantage. The people on the front lines of homeland security would not get demoralized as they watched politicians and the media bash them and grandstand with little knowledge.
Overreacting to terrorist attacks plays into Al Qaeda's hands. It also provokes responses that are likely to be large scale, expensive, ineffective, and perhaps even counterproductive. More screening for every passenger makes no sense. When searching for needles in haystacks, adding hay doesn't help. What's needed is a larger, more robust watch list that is instantly available to all relevant agencies in the government. Almost 2 million people travel on planes in the United States every day. We need to isolate the tiny percentage of suspicious characters and search them, not cause needless fear in everyone else.
As for the calls to treat the would-be Christmas bomber as an enemy combatant, torture him, and toss him into Guantánamo, God knows he deserves it. But keep in mind, the crucial intelligence we received was from the boy's father. If that father had believed that the United States was a rogue superpower that would torture and abuse his child without any sense of decency, would he have turned him in? To keep this country safe we need many more fathers and uncles and friends and colleagues to have enough trust in America that they too would turn in the terrorist next door.
Fareed Zakaria is editor of NEWSWEEK International and author of The Post-American World and The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.