Recently, Vice President Joe Biden was interviewed for a lengthy profile in the Atlantic. In it, he argued that while fighting terrorism was a challenge for the United States, it should not be seen as a life-or-death matter. “Terrorism is a real threat,” the Vice President said, “but it’s not an existential threat of the democratic country of the United States of America. Terrorism can cause real problems. It can undermine confidence. It can kill relatively large numbers of people. But terrorism is not an existential threat.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/08/biden-doctrine/496841/)
While Biden is certainly correct if he means that ISIS or Boko Haram are likely to stage a successful military invasion of the United States, we shouldn’t limit our understanding of “terrorism” to egregious acts of violence such as we have seen in Paris, Nice, Orlando, and San Bernadino, among other places. Consider cyberterrorism. The FBI has asserted that the massive hack of the Democratic party’s email servers was conducted by the Russians. Regardless of one’s politics, this breach, likely committed by a foreign government, has profound implication both for the durability of US democracy and our national security. A Forbes article from November 2014 argued that “America’s critical infrastructure – the utilities, refineries, military defense systems, water treatment plants… has become its soft underbelly, the place where we are now most vulnerable to attack.” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/11/11/americas-critical-infrastructure-is-vulnerable-to-cyber-attacks/#177626316b8a) The article recounted a number of alarming cyberattacks on some of America’s key infrastructure – such as the HAVEX Trojan horse, which attached itself to control systems of major US manufacturers, allowing the hackers to siphon off sensitive technical data. The Chinese, as many news agencies have reported, have engaged in major cyberattacks of US intellectual property.( http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2014/11/11/americas-critical-infrastructure-is-vulnerable-to-cyber-attacks/#177626316b8a). Indeed, many lawmakers are even concerned that the upcoming Presidential election is vulnerable to tampering by Russia (http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/2016/09/01/US-Lawmakers-Worried-About-Russian-Cyber-Attacks-Election-Day).
In this way, terrorism doesn’t have to be violent, or involve mass death or destruction, to pose an existential threat to the nation. A well-coordinated attack on the security systems of an electrical grid, or on the nation’s electronic voting tabulation systems would be much more damaging than a car-bomb or a nightclub massacre, terrible and inexcusable as those things are. As one academic study put it, “Cyber terrorists are politically or religiously motivated. Creating fear and panic among civilians, and disrupting or destroying public and private infrastructure is the goal of terrorists.” (file:///Users/ts505050/Downloads/JSIS%20Final%20Paper.pdf). Both state and non-state actors have demonstrated time and again their willingness and ability to attack, and cripple, information systems that are vital to maintaining our way of life.
Indeed, the challenge of fighting terrorism lies both in identifying – and capturing – terrorists before they strike but also in getting a grip on all the various methods of terrorism: from dramatic acts of mass violence, to cyberterrorism, bioterrorism (the spread of dangerous pathogens into an unsuspecting population), nuclear terrorism, and even agroterrorism, which seeks to disrupt and hinder the nation’s food supply (http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metacrs9549/m1/1/high_res_d/RL32521_2006Aug25.pdf). Some security experts even believe that the latter is one of our nation’s most vulnerable areas. “Experts believe that fruit- and vegetable-packing plants are among the most vulnerable venues for food borne attacks,” according to the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin website. “… They do not practice uniform biosecurity methods, and they do not use heat, an effective front-end barrier against pathogens, in food processing… Farms, ranches, and feedlots in America are dispersed, open, and generally unprotected.” (https://leb.fbi.gov/2012/february/agroterrorism-threats-to-americas-economy-and-food-supply)
Thus, we shouldn’t minimize the potential impact of terrorism, as the Vice President appears to do in his Atlantic interview. But neither should we respond with a bunker-like mentality either. America’s greatness lies not only in its democratic form of government but also because it is an open society. We welcome a diversity of peoples and opinions and recognize that through debate and argument, we can create a more equitable society. Terrorism seeks to close down the open society – to force Americans to adopt a bunker-like mentality where diversity of opinion and free and rational exchange of ideas is curtailed in the name of “security.” In this respect, too, terrorism is an existential threat – forcing the United States to curtail many of its cherished values and fundamentally alter its culture in order to assure its citizens of protection.
Terrorism can best be countered through a combination of vigilance and flexibility. We must remain aware that threats to our nation’s security are ever-present require the resources and the public support in order to meet them. The risks that foreign cyberattacks carry against American democracy are profound – as the recent hacking schedule of the DNC demonstrate. Yet, we must remain flexible enough to respond appropriately – ISIS and Boko Haram can cause damage and indefensible loss of life but they will remain unable to truly mount a military offensive against the United States. And as for nuclear terrorism? State actors like Iran or Kim Jong-un’s North Korea are well aware that any force used against its neighbors will be met with a response that would truly be existential.
Again, I disagree with VP Biden. Terrorism is an existential threat. It requires a strategic response, one that is flexible enough both to urgently addresses risks and attacks while measured enough so it doesn’t fundamentally alter our culture as a free society. Terror is adamant. Fight requires: endurance, counter-terrorism intelligence and swift operation!