OPINION: Twenty years after 9/11, foreign terrorism isn’t America’s biggest threat

An American flag at half mast waves in the wind.
Sae Furukawa PO ’25 argues that 9/11 overshadows other issues that are more prominent and directly affecting American lives. (Courtesy: Juliette Kober)

During the 20-year anniversary commemoration of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, former president George W. Bush made a stunning comparison between al-Qaeda and domestic terrorism in his speech — which was widely interpreted as a reference to the insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Bush claimed that there is “growing evidence that the dangers to our country can come not only across borders but also from violence that gathers within.”

Bush is among the most unpopular former presidents of the United States, who dragged the country into two endless, maddening wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet he was right to claim that, as much as we are concerned about foreign terrorists attacking American soil, there is a new and growing threat from homegrown violence rooted in racism and white supremacy.

Ever since hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, counterterrorism has been at the center of Washington, D.C.’s political decision-making. While some politicians have exploited the event as an excuse to invade foreign states and massacre countless innocent civilians, there has been real progress following 9/11, namely a significant reduction in the number of foreign-born terrorist attacks on American soil. Still, according to polling from Gallup, Americans today are as concerned about terrorism as they were right after 9/11.

The lasting socio-psychological impact of 9/11 can be better explained in a larger context. The event was the first foreign attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor and thus it disrupted the established sense of security among Americans. 9/11 became emblematic of the downfall of U.S. hegemony, or the so-called American exceptionalism that fostered a sense of immunity to external threats.

But let’s make one thing clear: foreign terrorism has never been the most pressing threat facing America. Since 9/11, more people have died from violence by racially motivated far-right extremists; as suggested in a recent report from the Director of National Intelligence, they pose a far more imminent threat to Americans than foreign extremists. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, 71 percent of extremist-related casualties in the United States between 2008 and 2017 were perpetrated by white supremacists, compared to only 26 percent by Islamic extremists.

Nevertheless, attention to domestic-born far-right extremism has been undermined and overshadowed by a wealth of resources channeled into combating al-Qaeda and other foreign extremist groups. “It’s undeniable that federal law enforcement has underplayed and misunderstood the level of white supremacist violence,” Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, told The Guardian.

While it’s true that Washington has made substantial progress in some areas of counterterrorism since 9/11, the past 20 years of U.S. foreign policy have also had far more problematic consequences. Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Washington found itself stuck in a two-decade war that cost more than $1 trillion and the lives of 2,300 U.S. soldiers — at first it was about eliminating al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and crippling his organization, before the mission morphed into a nation-building agenda.

Ultimately, 111,000 Afghan civilians who had nothing to do with the U.S. mission were killed, and many others were forced to flee their homes. Considering this context, President Joe Biden’s agenda of complete withdrawal from Afghanistan seemed inevitable, and indeed some may wonder why Washington did not accept this reality sooner, long before the withdrawal agreement negotiated under the Trump administration. The answer may perhaps be simple: many in Congress were eager to end this vicious cycle of “War on Terror” military intervention, but they were also conscious of potential repercussions from the general public that may put their political futures in jeopardy. Ultimately, it proved much easier to maintain the status quo. 

Even today, when the public consensus is generally in favor of a policy of reduced military commitments abroad, many Americans still seem to be paranoid of the idea of “foreign terrorism” well beyond what reality would imply. More than a decade after 9/11, anti-Muslim assaults were five times more common than before 2002 — a stunning reminder of how Americans’ elevated fear toward “Islamic fundamentalist” terrorism translated into broad-based Islamophobia. The Trump administration’s “travel ban” disproportionately affecting Muslim-majority countries is among the more recent examples of policies driven by racial and religious prejudice.

Reflecting on what the most pressing issues facing the country really are provides an opportunity to reassess what is in the collective interest of America. Rather than relying on mythical narratives of “foreign terrorism” imposed by our culture and media, individuals must bring further attention to violence that comes from within — whether its origin is considered to be white supremacy, lack of gun control or a combination of factors.

Counterterrorism is not necessarily a wasteful project, and the United States, just like any other country, has to invest in it to ensure the security and safety of American citizens. At the same time, however, the past 20 years of madness in Washington’s policy-making have proved that over-channeling resources into tackling “foreign extremism” often leads to ill-visioned foreign policies that produce more harm than benefit, and divert attention from other pressing threats. 

More importantly, this is not just a problem among politicians: politicians are largely influenced by public opinion, and each voter plays a role in influencing their policy agendas. This is the very reason why young voters must be able to critically assess the country’s needs and priorities — so that they can elect policymakers who understand and strive toward holistic benefits to the public.

Sae Furukawa PO ’25 is from Tokyo, Japan. She loves nonfiction, documentaries and Coppola’s films.

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