When I was a child, I understood that we were in a Cold War with an enemy who had the power to destroy every metropolitan area in our nation, all in one mighty blow. These days, that threat is gone. The weapons themselves are not, but there is no reason to use them. The new threat is one with far less striking power. Mostly, we are concerned about car bombs or perhaps some buildings being destroyed. Our greatest fear is that they might get one or two nuclear devices; perhaps some biological or chemical weapon being released in some city.
Sure, any kind of doomsday scenario is conceivable today, but they are all unlikely to occur. With the USSR, we knew for a fact that the weapons existed and were targeted at us.
Another difference between these threats was their nature. The Soviet Union also had to live with the fact that we, too, had thousands of nuclear weapons targeted for their cities and military installations - we would hit back if they started something. Our current opposition does not even have a stronghold, much less a country. This does make it harder to get things done, especially if your goal is the downfall of Western civilization. Finally, we must consider spies and saboteurs. Don't you think that the USSR had plenty of spies and saboteurs here in the USA? They had massive resources available to train and support them, too - far more than our current opponents could ever dream of.
In the best of situations, with our populace largely unconcerned and unwatchful, with our leaders' focus elsewhere, the most that Al-Qaida could do was commandeer four airplanes and kill 2986 people. With no government response, with no specialized training, with only the knowledge of the attackers' true intentions, regular American citizens stopped the fourth airplane from reaching its target.
It should be clear that the threat of violent extremism is not the greatest threat this country has ever faced. In fact, it is a lesser threat than a Communist world power dedicated to formenting a global revolution and ending capitalism with thousands of hydrogen-bomb-tipped ICBMs and SLBMs targeted at all our cities and military installations. Terrorism is a more frightening threat than the Soviet Union, because we don't have a clear target to retaliate against.
This is my question: Why does our government need so much more power to fight a smaller threat? My guess is fear. Now, I am not saying we should be unconcerned; clearly, there is a threat that we must counter. However, we must also keep our perspective and be realistic about the scope of the threat we face.