Time to Declare Victory?
That is the gist of Radley Balko’s article at Fox News.
The fatal flaw in the “war on terror” has always been its open-endedness. The president of the United States is never going to sit down on a battleship to sign a peace treaty with terrorism. So when we give the government special, allegedly temporary powers to fight terrorism, we’re essentially handing over that power permanently.
This is a good point. Exactly how is the war on terror going to be won exactly. It seems like a safe bet that there is always going to be a group that will try to further its political agenda via terror tactics. So any measure that is implemented to temporarily fight terrorism would pretty much be a permanent measure. On top of that, exactly how often do governments give up power?
James Fallows begins in the cover story of this month’s Atlantic Monthly, with what I think is the single most important article written since Sept. 11. Fallows spoke with 60 experts in foreign policy, security, national defense, and terrorism, from all political ideologies
We should take heart in what he found: Al Qaeda is a shadow of what it once was. The group’s central organization has been dismantled. Its main sources of funding have been castrated. Its leaders are on the run, and their ability to organize and communicate severely disrupted. Yes, the loose-knit groups of cells that remain can still pull off attacks, and can still kill significant numbers of people. But so can just about any nut in America with a cause and some determination.
The only real threat Al Qaeda still poses, Fallows concludes, is how it can provoke us. “[Al Qaeda’s] hopes for fundamentally harming the United States now rest less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt, or goad us into doing,” Fallows writes. “Its destiny is no longer in its own hands.”
The part that really strikes me as important is the last two sentences of the second paragraph above, that while the remaining Al Qaeda cells can do damage, this is true of just about any nut (or fringe group) that decides to do some damage for their political cause. If this is true, then it seems reasonable to conclude that Al Qaeda has largely been defeated. Of course, I’m open to arguments and evidence to the contrary.
This part of Balko’s article fits with some previous posts of mine,
When a sociopath with Islamic fundamentalist sympathies recently opened fire at a Jewish center in Seattle, the first reaction among many opinion leaders was to maximize fear and paranoia by attempting to tie the gunman to global jihad. A more appropriate response would have been to give due deference and reverence to the loss of life and the horror of the incident, but to pay no more attention to the gunman’s schizophrenic philosophy than we might have if he’d been a white supremacist or environmentalist militant. His motivation only matters when we make it matter.
This part is also interesting,
We saw the same thing with the recently foiled plot to blow up planes bound to the U.S. from Britain. One Scotland Yard official panicked, “We cannot stress too highly the severity that this plot represented. Put simply, this was intended to be mass murder on an unimaginable scale.”
Britain responded by banning carry-on bags. America banned bottled water and hairspray. Since then, diverted flights and security incidents on airlines has become a daily occurrence. Never mind that the accused terrorists had yet to buy plane tickets, that many had yet to get passports, and that chemists say it would be extremely difficult to bring down a plane with liquid explosives, as the plotters imagined.
Writing for Wired magazine, security expert Bruce Schneier cautions, “Regardless of the threat, from the would-be bombers’ perspective, the explosives and planes were merely tactics. Their goal was to cause terror, and in that they’ve succeeded.”
If the premise is true, then the terrorists in the UK succeeded even in their failure. This is a point that James has raised as well.
The news that Scotland Yard managed to foil a terrorist attack that would have conceivably dwarfed the 9/11 attacks is not quite as good it might first appear. Certainly, the prevention of “mass murder on an unimaginable scale” is something for which we can be tremendously thankful. Still, our reaction to it has already furthered the terrorists’ aims.
The 9/11 attacks directly killed over 3000 people and destroyed billions of dollars worth of property. Naval Postgraduate School political economist Robert Looney recounts the damages:
“Lower Manhattan lost approximately 30 percent of its office space and a number of businesses ceased to exist. Close to 200,000 jobs were destroyed or relocated out of New York City, at least temporarily. The destruction of physical assets was estimated in the national accounts to amount to $14 billion for private businesses, $1.5 billion for state and local government enterprises and $0.7 billion for federal enterprises. Rescue, cleanup and related costs have been estimated to amount to at least $11 billion for a total direct cost of $27.2 billion.”
Indirectly, however, the cost was exponentially higher. The intermediate term cost in lost flights would likely have crippled an already-reeling airline industry without multi-million dollar government bailouts. The cost in retrofitting planes with hijack-proof cockpit doors, new baggage inspection regimes, employee background checks, and the like have imposed enormous additional costs. (The industry claims that the doors alone cost $300 million.) That’s to say nothing of the tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money spent ramping up a Department of Homeland Security, taking over airline inspections, and innumerable other actions taken on part of the government to provide at least the illusion of increased safety. Or the hundreds of billions in additional defense spending on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Regardless, the terrorists are having a major impact on our society. There have been enough successful attacks (9/11, London, and Madrid to name the most obvious) that each foiled attack still heightens the public fear level, causing a predictable government overreaction. Today’s news will certainly cost us a little more freedom and a lot more treasure.
It became a standing joke in the months after 9/11 attacks that, if we did not continue some trivial activity, “Then the terrorists have won.” Sadly, it’s no joke.
I’m willing to be persuaded to the contrary here, but the arguments seem pretty strong that our reactions to the threat of terrorism is wrong headed at this date. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be using our intelligence agencies to try and detect and stop terrorist attacks, nor that the same agencies shouldn’t be used to continue to hunt down and kill terrorists where ever they are. However, the impact that we allow on our everyday lives seems far in excess of the actual risks.