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.

[snip]

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.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    My initial reaction to the Fallows article was that the continuing war on terror is just too convenient a political tool to be abandoned by the current holders of power in Washington. Nothing that has happened since has disabused me of that notion.

  2. legion says:

    Exactly, DCL. In fact, the Left has been complaining about exactly that ever since day one of the “global war on terror”. Apparently, some on the Right are starting to see that inherent flaw also…

  3. Wayne says:

    Terror is like murder. We will never stop it completely but we can stop most of them and defiantly most of the systematic organize execution of them. Mob bosses at one time ran wild in U.S. However we got rid of most of them. The state sponsored and large well organize terrorist groups can be brought to a halt at least the vast majority of them. Like organized crime, it will not happen overnight and we will have to stay vigilant afterwards. When we stop the majority and resort to going after just a few new upstarts then we will have victory.

  4. LJD says:

    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.

    But I thought we squandered our resources in Iraq (where there was no A.Q.) and LET O.B.L. escape?

    In the minds of the lunatic fringe and conspiracy theorists, ANY current event is ‘too convenient a tool’ for the ‘holders of power’. I would say that any change in the power structure would yield an instant change in perception, without ANY real changes on the ground. In other words, this is all in your heads. Get over it.

    the impact that we allow on our everyday lives seems far in excess of the actual risks.

    You only ‘allow’ the impact you accept with the choices you make, and how you perceive the outcome. Too many confuse privileges and luxuries with Rights. Besides, at your level what qualifies you to make the assessment of said ‘actual risks’?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    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.

    That’s been my position since the start, Steve. However, those who advocate a forward strategy, whether Wilsonian or Jacksonian, have a point: it was politically necessary for us to respond after 9/11 and it will be politically necessary again in the event of another mass attack. The response to date has been quite mild; the next response will be less so. Feel lucky?

  6. Steve Verdon says:

    You only ‘allow’ the impact you accept with the choices you make, and how you perceive the outcome.

    Baloney. I can’t not allow the impact with regards to things like flying and the new security measures to affect me. To many of these things are things I have only a miniscule say in.

    Too many confuse privileges and luxuries with Rights. Besides, at your level what qualifies you to make the assessment of said ‘actual risks’?

    I know that people usually don’t assess risks accurately. And politicians have little or no incentive to correct for this, in fact they have incentives to play up the risks and use them for their own gain. So the idea that the risks are being accurately determined strikes me as a heroic leap.

  7. LJD says:

    My point was you can CHOOSE to fly, or take the bus, or drive, or take a cruise, or walk.

    Flying is not a Right. The airlines, and in your protection the government, have the authority to tell you the rules that apply to you when using their service.

    Maybe some one will start an airline called Suicidal Air, where you get to pass by all security measures, and bring your Aqua Velva in your carry on, but fly at your own risk. I wouldn’t imagine the stockholders being very supportive of sacrificing their investments or paying high insurance premiums for selfish short term goals.

    The fact that politicians have incentives for ‘playing up the risks’ is no proof that any of them are in fact, doing it. And the connotation that this is exclusive to the GOP is even more myopic.

  8. Steve Verdon says:

    My point was you can CHOOSE to fly, or take the bus, or drive, or take a cruise, or walk.

    Sure, but flying is often the best way to cover several thousand miles or go over large bodies of waters (e.g. a flight to Hawaii). By imposing higher and higher costs for little or no gain is a stupid thing. That is what is starting to happen, IMO. No beverages at all? Sorry airlines are cutting back on food and drinks these days. So now what? Go hungry for a 7 hour or longer flight?

    Flying is not a Right. The airlines, and in your protection the government, have the authority to tell you the rules that apply to you when using their service.

    The airline yes, the government? Sorry, that gets back to this problem I, James, and others are highlighting. Would airlines have these kinds of draconia practices if it weren’t for the legal requirements?

    Maybe some one will start an airline called Suicidal Air, where you get to pass by all security measures, and bring your Aqua Velva in your carry on, but fly at your own risk.

    Now you are just being an idiot. It isn’t a question of the security we have now or none at all (the either/or fallacy along with a nice dose of red herring). It is a question of reasonableness.

    I wouldn’t imagine the stockholders being very supportive of sacrificing their investments or paying high insurance premiums for selfish short term goals.

    And are investors going to be willing to sacrifice their investment on the alter of faux security measures? Serioulsy, the airlines are hurting and it is quite possible we’ll secure them right out of the skies. On the plus side, there wont be anymore 9/11s. On the down side you’ll have a long swim to get anywhere over seas.

    The fact that politicians haveThe fact that politicians have incentives for ‘playing up the risks’ is no proof that any of them are in fact, doing it.

    Read the links, and look at President Bush. Everything gets back to terrorims. Hell, I bet if I looked hard enough I’d find a link to terrorism and tax cuts.

    And the connotation that this is exclusive to the GOP is even more myopic.

    I didn’t say it was. Both Bush and Kerry tried to use the fear of terrorism and terrorist attacks.

  9. While the President may be correct in his analysis that the war on terrorism is expanding to other regions, he fails to see that his approach to the issue…particularly his decision to invade Iraq and the fact that progress in the troubled country seems elusive…may well be creating the new threats. Further, as he heightens his rhetoric in order to win votes by inferring that the origin of these extremists is Islam, he foments more animosity in more countries and the terrorism equation keeps growing.

    If we concede that the President is sincerely motivated…and I might be inclined to concede as much…it nonetheless doesn’t make him right. Additionally, if his approach is wrong and it is actually inciting more terrorists, then his convictions simply amplify the problem and diminish the potential for him to chart a new course. In the end, his rhetoric may well be more dangerous if it is sincere…but one cannot argue that his recent remarks aren’t political. The fact that his politics stem from his ideology is no comfort to the many Americans that simply reject his conclusions. In fact, that merely makes it all the more important to counter his politics.

    Read more here:

    http://www.thoughttheater.com

  10. Adam Herman says:

    Well, in regard to the War on Terror, don’t be so sure that we won’t someday see Osama bin Laden signing surrender documents. It may seem farfetched, but who would have thought the Japanese militarists would ever sign surrender documents?

    Our enemies may be fanatical, but they’ve got nothing on the Japanese. If the Japanese can be forced to sign surrender documents, so can bin Laden and his band of merry idiots.

  11. Millions for defense, not one penny for tribute. Perhaps a corollary to that argument is what you are looking for. Fighting terrorism is hard, decidedly non-utopian if not dystopian in its requirements and results, and, yes, for all intents and purposes, never ending. It is still a battle that must be fought. I, for one, don’t care to strike any bargains to obtain a level of terrorism we can all, ahem, live with.

  12. LJD says:

    There’s probably not much more I can say to open your eyes to what I’m saying here, Steve.

    I agree, there are stupid security measures in place that may not actually add much to the process. Unfortunately, you and I are not in a position to decide that, nor would we want the responsibility.

    Flying is a great, great convenience. Being able to travel thousands of miles in a day, instead of several months by covered wagons, wondering if you will be killed by bandits or wild animals. In light of that, I would think and hour or two of inconvenience might be worth a safe and quick journey.

    You original point, which I just don’t see, is this ‘impact on our daily lives’. Not having a drink on your flight is NOt an impact. IMO Americans are spoiled and soft. Hence, complaints such as these. I would say that death is much, much more inconvenient.