Death of bin Laden: Visible vs. Invisible in U.S. National Security

After digesting the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by a U.S. Navy Seals team, my first thought was about how his death, and the manner in which it happened, highlights the tension between the visible and the invisible in terms of terrorism and counterterrorism. Terrorism must be tactically invisible in order to effectively plan and carry out attacks, but it depends on the high visibility of those attacks for any strategic impact. In almost a perfect inversion, counterterrorism employs highly visible tactical measures -- the kind of "security theater" best-illustrated at airports -- to reassure the public, but its strategic successes are accomplished so far off the radar that we would not even be aware of them were they not publicly announced.

For the U.S., the invisible aspects of CT are essential, because they are the only way to counter the asymmetric advantage terrorrists enjoy against the visible elements of the U.S. security equation. But if bin Laden's death raises any questions for me, they are along these lines, especially given how the Obama administration's new national security team reinforces the degree to which the U.S. security posture has been reconfigured toward invisibility.

Clearly, that's a good thing to the extent that it accelerates the inevitable irrelevance of al-Qaida and its fellow travelers in the Arab world. The danger lies in the temptation that the invisible elements of power, with all its attendant abuses, will almost certainly exercise on security policymakers. It also lies in the ways in which the invisible elements of power can ultimately undermine the visible elements, which though perhaps ineffective against an invisible threat like al-Qaida, are vitally necessary for maintaining innumerable aspects of the global order. Deterrence, for instance, depends on visibility, as does the substantive aspects of post-conflict reconstruction.

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