THE BLOG
02/01/2013 10:19 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2013

The Carlin Doctrine

Having done about a half-million miles of travel over the last few years, I've found (the late) George Carlin's musings on "airport security" helpful to maintaining my sense of humor when dealing with the sometimes odious and repetitive task of proving to the TSA screeners that I am not, nor ever have been, a threat to the national security of the United States of America.

In his diatribe on particularly the American obsession with terrorism, Carlin ranted:

"Take a f***ing chance, will ya?... The odds of you being killed by a terrorist are practically zero. You have to be a realist. Certain groups of people -- Muslim fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, and just plain guys from Montana -- are gonna continue to make life in this country very interesting for a long, long time. That's the reality. Enjoy it. Relax. I see it as a form of entertainment. As far as I'm concerned, all this airport security... is just one more way of reducing your liberty and reminding you that they can f*** with you any time they want -- as long as you put up with it. Americans are willing to trade away a little of their freedom in exchange for the feeling -- the illusion -- of security. What we have now is a completely neurotic population obsessed with security and safety... "

All joking aside, Carlin was on to something. Since 9/11, Americans seem to have been more anxious and risk-averse than ever. Sure, every generation seems to think the place, for one reason or another, is going to hell in a hand basket. This time, however, it's because we sense the country is in decline and that our way of life is changing for the worse, and that our institutions -- above all, the government -- seem incapable of dealing with circumstances increasingly beyond their control: National insecurity, if you will.

With our war on Afghanistan ending, we at last have the opportunity to put the never-ending "War on Terror" in its rightful place -- as a sideshow rather than at center stage of our national security paradigm, and focus on more important things than even national security.

To get the terrorism-obsession thing in perspective, consider this first: we've sent hundreds of thousands of our country's finest, losing a few thousand of them and wounding tens of thousands more (let alone the hundreds of thousands of civilians we hardly mention), and spent more than a trillion dollars essentially in response to what a few hundred extremists were able to do to us at a cost of a few million dollars. Now that's "asymmetric warfare" -- except we haven't been on the winning side of that equation.

That's because the whole idea of 9/11 was for them to pick a fight with us and let us bleed ourselves dry in our knee-jerk response and piss off a good chunk of the rest of the world while we run around it playing global Whac-A-Mole with these guys until we either kill all of them or we collapse from our own exhaustion. And we're about to continue this game in Africa, if we're not careful. All in the name of protecting American citizens at home from these people -- if those citizens allow it.

We've blown this all out of proportion. Carlin was right: If the total number of Americans killed in America by foreign terrorists over the last dozen years is less than 3,000 -- and with a population of over 330 million, that would put a simple percentage chance of being killed by a foreign terrorist here at around .000009. Practically zero, especially if you don't live in places like New York or Washington, and less than the chances of getting killed on the interstate, winning the lottery, getting cancer, or being shot by a crazed gunman in a movie theater or a school.

We murder nearly three times as many of our own people each year than we lost on one fine September day, and yet we can't seem to find consensus on reasonable measures on the proliferation of weapons of personal destruction, allegedly over issues of personal freedom and distrust of the government, while we silently accept the continued compromise of our liberties in the Patriot Act and the perpetuation of a national security state in order to protect ourselves from people who would otherwise do us harm.

So, if we're willing to "take a f***ing chance" with mentally deranged gun toters in our own front yards, then why not with equally deranged foreign terrorists a few times zones away?

If we think the reason we've not been hit again is only because we've done such a good job of keeping the terrorists in check, just remember the logic the homeland security and defense people like to use to keep us on edge: "We have to be right all the time; they have to be right only once." Besides, the War on Terror has been essentially defensive, playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Defensive strategies are ultimately losing ones, and history has never been kind to great powers in a state of perpetual warfare.

The good news is that, despite the recent militarization of the American footprint in Africa, there are signs that we are ending the War on Terror as we've known it. In fact, both Afghanistan and Mali may be signs that the U.S., as George Friedman of STRATFOR put it, "is not just drawing down its combat commitments; it is moving away from the view that it has the primary responsibility for trying to manage the world on behalf of itself, the Europeans and its other allies. Instead, that burden is shifting to those who have immediate interests involved."

That may be true, but what is no doubt driving the shift in our global strategy and what former Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson called a "tipping point" that will make counterterrorism an important -- but no longer vital -- national interest, prosecuted by civilian agencies "with our military assets available in reserve" is money -- or the lack thereof. "We are in a long-term draw-down at the Pentagon" Gordon Adams of Foreign Policy has been saying.

All this means we're going to have to take a bit of a reasonable risk. "Mitigating the threat of an enemy rather than defeating the enemy outright goes against an impulse," notes Friedman. "But it is not something alien to American strategy." We can, in fact, promote peace and security in a way in which "less is more" and "where defense ends, strategy begins."

"Americans do not readily accept the fact that history actually takes time and progress is always hard and uncertain," observes Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Nevertheless, they must learn strategic patience and to accept progress at an evolutionary pace... Members of Congress, think tankers, and other armchair strategists will also need to stop mindless political sloganeering about 'leading from behind' and insisting on doing it our way."

And the only thing that stands in our way is public acceptance of that risk and a more humble approach, which is exactly Carlin's point. You heard me say this before: America cannot long remain the land of the free if it is no longer the home of the brave.

When realizing the times were changing and the Soviet Union was losing its grip over its Eastern European satellites, Mikhail Gorbachev half-jokingly adopted what he called the "Sinatra Doctrine" (with reference to the song, "My Way"). The "Carlin Doctrine" may likewise help us understand our need to recognize the seismic changes afoot and adapt our approach to being more what we're about than what we're afraid of, with a little sense of humor to boot.

Or, as Carlin, would tell us: "Take a f***ing chance!"