Changing Threats to National Security

            While I was fascinated by many of the specific questions addressed by Philip Zelikow following his lecture “The Twilight War,” I found it was some of his broader commentary given in the lecture that got me thinking the most (a biography of Zelikow and a copy of his presentation can be found here).

            Zelikow’s assertion that Al Qaeda represents a threat nowhere near the level of figures like Hitler or Stalin – and that taking these terrorists too seriously gave them a reverence they didn’t deserve – startled me at first.  While this could simply be a direct result of having grown up in the present age, I have always considered the threats to US security today to be more significant than those of previous periods of history – and thus, since Al Qaeda has come to represent (in many ways) one of the greater threats to American security in our era, their importance shouldn’t, I thought, be minimized in this way.  I then began to think, however, about another point of his lecture: the fact that the nature of threats to theUS has changed dramatically over the past 10-20 years.  He asserted that while the dangers of the last century were related to large-scale war between nation states, the threats of this era are characterized by threats from individuals or small groups.  In many ways, I think this means that due to the many changes happening in the world today (especially technologically), the US has become far more vulnerable to attack by individuals or organizations with little established infrastructure and perhaps no state sponsorship.  Perhaps, then, the true danger is not Al Qaeda, but rather theUS’s rapidly expanding vulnerability to attack.  In this case, I could support his rejection of the importance given to Al Qaeda specifically by our culture.

            This did, however, cause me to disagree slightly with another part of Zelikow’s lecture: his parallel between the anti-terrorist “cultural momentum” of 9/11 and the “fever” against anarchists in the wake of McKinley’s assassination.  He seemed to think that the American response to 9/11 would cool down, just as anti-anarchist fury dissipated after the movement was largely stamped out in theUS.  If US vulnerability is truly expanding, however, I don’t believe the US’s passionate response to terrorism will dissipate in quite the same way – perhaps largely because, even if we were somehow to eradicate Al Qaeda, the threat of attack against theUnited States seems unlikely to diminish.

            Finally, one thing that disappointed me about the lecture was that Zelikow did not define the concept of “The Twilight War” at length – especially since it is one which he seems to have largely pioneered.  I was able to find some explanation of it in these remarks, although the best source of information on it would probably be his afterward to the 9/11 Commission Report.

Corinne Waite

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