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Countering Terrorism Isn’t Easy

This holiday week’s “attempted act of terrorism” on a U.S.-bound flight reveals the difficulty of getting counterterrorism right. Terrorists use the element of surprise—stuff we haven’t thought of, or timing and locations that we can’t defend—to pull off attacks that instill fear.

We’ll learn what kind of explosive or incendiary material Nigerian traveler Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to ignite, and security measures will be installed to better foreclose this attack in the future. But many efforts to thwart terrorism miss the mark or overshoot their goal.

There are dozens of bills in Congress that touch on terrorism one way or another. Two of the most prominent illustrate how tough counterterrorism is.

H.R. 2159, the Denying Firearms and Explosives to Dangerous Terrorists and its Senate counterpart, S. 1317, are intended to let the U.S. Attorney General deny the transfer of firearms and explosives to terrorists. But this can only work against known terrorists, and it can’t work against terrorists when they’re just entering the country from overseas as in this case.

Commenters on these bills argue that they are overly broad and would deny the Second Amendment rights of U.S. citizens who aren’t terrorists. If they don’t actually prevent a likely attack, and if they undermine rights, that’s a classic example of our country hurting itself because of overreaction to terrorism fears.

Countering terrorism isn’t easy, and there are many more security measures that don’t work than ones that do. It’ll take a little steel in our spines and a little ice water in our veins to continue staring down the terrorist threat. While we do that, it’s important to continue enjoying our American birthright of freedom and opportunity.

One commentator’s take turns away from fear and overreaction in a way that I think is interesting: This episode isn’t something to fear, says Spencer Ackerman. It’s an example of terrorists’ desperate bid for relevance.

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