Sunday, January 31, 2010

Some sense and nonsense about terrorism (from Fareed Zakaria & Rudy Giuliani)

Caught up in what has become his habitual mode of obsessive and often factually careless sloganeering about terrorism, Rudy Giuliani slips into alternate reality again ... or perhaps he's reaching for new levels of self-parody.

Of course, it's true that Obama didn't spend the entire State of the Union Speech obsessing about the terrorist threat--whereas Giuliani has trouble talking about anything else. Would it have been a good idea for Obama to fixate, Giuliani-style, on the dangers of terrorism? Of course not.

It would be a great mistake to ignore the threat of terrorism, to pretend that it's not a serious problem, or to make excuses for terrorists (explicitly or implicitly). But Obama and his administration have never done any of those things, even slightly.

On the other hand, to the extent that terrorist organizations manage to keep us terrorized, then their efforts are successful, whether or not their bombs actually go off. As Fareed Zakaria, among others, wisely pointed out in the aftermath of the Christmas underpants-bombing attempt:
The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction. Its real aim is not to kill the hundreds of people directly targeted but to sow fear in the rest of the population. Terrorism is an unusual military tactic in that it depends on the response of the onlookers. If we are not terrorized, then the attack didn't work. Alas, this one worked very well. [....]

On Christmas a Qaeda affiliate launched an operation using one person, with no special target, and a failed technique tried eight years ago by "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. [....] The suicide bomber was not even able to commit suicide. But Al Qaeda succeeded in its real aim, which was to throw the American system into turmoil. That's why the terror group proudly boasted about the success of its mission.
It should be possible, as Zakaria properly suggests, to find "some sensible reaction between panic and passivity." But one factor that makes a sensible response to terrorism less likely is for elected officials to convey a message of panicked obsession with terrorism to the American public and to our enemies.
Overreacting to terrorist attacks plays into Al Qaeda's hands. It also provokes responses that are likely to be large scale, expensive, ineffective, and perhaps even counterproductive.
For example:
More screening for every passenger makes no sense. When searching for needles in haystacks, adding hay doesn't help. [....] What's needed is a larger, more robust watch list that is instantly available to all relevant agencies in the government. Almost 2 million people travel on planes in the United States every day. We need to isolate the tiny percentage of suspicious characters and search them, not cause needless fear in everyone else. [....]
And, by the way, here is an especially perceptive point, which advocates of (or apologists for) torture ought to ponder especially carefully:
As for the calls to treat the would-be Christmas bomber as an enemy combatant, torture him, and toss him into Guantánamo, God knows he deserves it. But keep in mind, the crucial intelligence we received was from the boy's father. If that father had believed that the United States was a rogue superpower that would torture and abuse his child without any sense of decency, would he have turned him in? To keep this country safe we need many more fathers and uncles and friends and colleagues to have enough trust in America that they too would turn in the terrorist next door.
Yours for political sanity,
Jeff Weintraub