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Yes, A Strong and Resilient Nation Can Absorb a Terrorist Attack

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Bob Woodward's latest book reportedly quotes President Obama as saying "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." He is absolutely correct and displays great courage in stating it. Not surprisingly, critics are now trying to make political hay by suggesting that this is an "outrageous" comment that shows that the President "doesn't care about Americans dying." This is not just unfortunate demagoguery, it undermines our national security by building up our adversary and hampering efforts to bolster the resiliency of the American public.

For eight years, the message leaders conveyed to the American people was that they should "be afraid, be very afraid." Terrorism was portrayed as an existential threat. Counterterrorism experts not only say that this is inaccurate, they emphasize that these kinds of messages are not helpful to our overall counterterrorism efforts.

A recent report from the leaders of the 9/11 Commission, authored by terrorism experts Bruce Hoffman and Peter Bergen, concludes that the threat from al Qaeda today is "less severe" and "the group's capabilities to implement [a 9/11] scale attack are currently far less formidable than they were nine years ago." Nevertheless, they warn that smaller scale attacks are entirely possible. In the face of this reality, American resilience is a powerful deterrent that will frustrate the terrorist's goals of spreading disruption and fear. The report emphasizes that "American overreactions to even unsuccessful terrorist attacks arguably have played, however inadvertently, into the hands" of the terrorists.

Liz Cheney says the President's statement "suggests an alarming fatalism." No one could accuse Lee Hamilton and Governor Kean, or Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, of being fatalistic about the terrorist threat. Recognizing that there are no guarantees against another attack and that America is a strong and resilient nation and will survive such a tragedy were it to happen does not imply any lack of commitment to prevent another attack. It is precisely the kind of realistic approach that will make us stronger and ultimately safer.

Muhammad Ali won fights in part because he learned how to absorb punches. That doesn't mean he didn't do everything in his power to avoid those punches but he knew some would connect and he learned to absorb them, pain and all, so that he could go on fighting.

Americans understand that any politician who promises them that he or she can guarantee there will never be another terrorist attack on American soil is not being straight with them. Our government is working with fierce determination each and every day to prevent another attack but we know there are no guarantees. Despite this, Americans refuse to live in fear.

For years, we have heard accusations that someone has a "September 10 mindset", implying that they don't understand the threat we face. I argue that the greater risk is being stuck in a "September 12 mindset." On that day after the horrible attacks of 2001, we lived with a deep sense of fragility as we waited in fear for the next attack. Over the subsequent days and years, however, Americans returned to their daily lives, just as the people of London went back down into the subways after their own attacks. We learned that resiliency is an essential and powerful weapon against terrorism. It means knowing that there may be another attack, but refusing to live in, or make decisions based upon, fear. When politicians and policymakers fall back on that September 12 mindset of fear to convey their message and promote their policies, they undermine that essential public resiliency.

The President's Homeland Security Adviser, John Brennan, put it very well last Spring during remarks delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in DC:

"As a strong and resilient nation, we will strengthen our ability to withstand any disruption, whatever the cause. For even as we put unrelenting pressure on the enemy, even as we strive to thwart 100 percent of the plots against us, we know that terrorists are striving to succeed only once... Instead of giving into fear and paralysis, which is the goal of terrorists, we must resolve, as a nation, as a people, that we will go forward with confidence, that we will resist succumbing to overreaction, especially to failed attacks and not magnify these perpetrators beyond the despicable miscreants that they are, that as a proud and strong nation, we will not cower in the face of a small band of cowards who hide in the shadows and send others to their slaughter and to slaughter the innocents."

No one wants another attack. Men and women in the military, intelligence, law enforcement, and throughout government at every level are working tirelessly to prevent that. A successful attack would have a dramatic impact on this country. But this nation would survive. Leaders who acknowledge that reality make us stronger.