Actually, Obama’s right — we can ‘absorb a terrorist attack’

Many conservatives are reacting pretty strongly to Barack Obama’s line to Bob Woodward that “We can absorb a terrorist attack. We’ll do everything we can to prevent it, but even a 9/11, even the biggest attack ever … we absorbed it and we are stronger.”

For instance, Mark Thiessen writes for the American Enterprise Institute this critique:

These are stunningly complacent words from the man responsible for stopping such a terrorist attack. Obama uttered them last July, after America suffered two near-misses—the failed attacks on Christmas Day and in Times Square. Rather than serving as a wake-up call and giving the president a sense of urgency, these attacks seem to have given the president a sense of resignation. He is effectively saying: an attack is inevitable, we’ll do our best to prevent it, but if we get hit again—even on the scale of 9/11—it’s really no big deal.

I don’t often defend the President, but I do try to interpret his words charitably. I don’t see Obama as “complacent,” but rather, realistic.

I might put his “absorb” statement this way: We don’t have a zero crime rate. As a culture, we wouldn’t accept the measures it would take to achieve a zero crime rate. Why should we demand a zero terrorism rate by any means necessary?

I thought about this after the Christmas Day undie-bomber attempt, about which Peter King said: “This could have been devastating.”

What does that mean? It resembles the talk, post 9/11, of Islamic terrorism as posing an “existential threat” to the U.S. Does anyone really think the terrorists could possibly eliminate us from this Earth.

Matt Yglesias, with whom I rarely agree on policy, and whose online rudeness makes me hesitant to cite him, had a good response to King’s statement:

The United States could not, of course, be “devastated” by anything resembling this scheme. We ought to be clear on that fact. We want to send the message around the world that this sort of vile attempt to slaughter innocent people is not, at the end of the day, anything resembling a serious challenge to American power. It’s attempted murder, it’s wrong, we should try to stop it, but it’s really not much more than that.

Understanding that one terrorist attack is a horrible thing, and for the victims and their families, it is life-shattering doesn’t mean that you have to agree our government should take every step to prevent such an attack. Curfews and total surveillance of everyone all the time would do the trick, but would it be worth it?

We often make cost-benefit analyses that weigh potential deaths against other factors, like freedom, convenience, and cost. It sounds awful, but it’s real.

Sure, the President shouldn’t have said this to a reporter, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.

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