The more I think about the events that transfixed Boston and the nation last week, the more troubled I am. Not by what it says about the dangers we face from violent extremists (aka "terrorism"), but for what it says about our collective inability to keep these dangers in perspective and to respond to them sensibly. I am beginning to wonder if our political and social system is even capable of a rational response to events of this kind.
Don't get me wrong: The speed with which the Tsarnaev brothers were identified was remarkable, and citizens at the scene of the bombing showed resolution and humanity in helping the victims. Here in Boston, a great many people worked with energy, courage, and effectiveness to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. And one can only feel a sense of heartache and tragedy when reading about each of the victims, senselessly murdered.
It's the larger response to the tragedy that worries me. Although politicians from Barack Obama to Deval Patrick offered up the usual defiant statements about America's toughness and resilience in the face of terror, the overall reaction to the attacks was anything but. Public officials shut down the entire city of Boston and several surrounding suburbs for most of the day, at an estimated cost of roughly $300 million. What did this accomplish? It showed that a 19 year-old amateur could paralyze an entire American metropolis. As numerous commentators have already pointed out, a city-wide lockdown is not what public officials have done in countless other manhunts, such as the search for rogue cop Christopher Dorner in Los Angeles. And Dorner was a former Navy reservist who had killed four people and who was at least as "armed and dangerous" as the Tsarnaevs. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the attitude that tamed the West, stopped the Third Reich, or won the Cold War.
The media frenzy that accompanied these events was equally disturbing. If terrorists "want a lot of people watching," then that's precisely what the American media gave them. It is probably unrealistic to hope that today's hydra-headed and commercially voracious media would respond to an event like this with even a modicum of restraint, but the feeding frenzy that CNN, Fox, and many other outlets engaged in must have been deeply gratifying to America's enemies. Television networks have learned not to train their cameras on the lunkheads who sometimes jump out of the bleachers and race across a baseball field. In a perfect world, these same organizations would act with similar wisdom when terrorists strike. In particular they would tell the public what it needed to know for the sake of safety, but they would spare us the round-the-clock, obsessive-compulsive, and error-ridden blather that merely gives extremists the publicity they seek.
As Boston shut down and the world watched, fourteen Americans were killed and more than 200 were injured in a factory explosion in Texas. Those people are just as dead as the four victims in Boston, yet their story is already fading to the back pages of the major papers. Meanwhile, the Tsarnaevs remain the Big Story and got profiled on 60 Minutes last night. As I write this, the death toll from last week's earthquake in China nears 200 -- with thousands injured -- but it barely rates a passing glance. And the week before the Marathon bombing, those courageous members of our bought-and-paid-for Senate rejected the very mildest of efforts to reduce the danger from guns, even though firearms kill over 30,000 Americans every year. As Michael Cohen noted in the Guardian, we fear that which scares us, but not the things that actually threaten us.
What is it about terrorism that terrorizes? Is the disproportionate attention it receives due to its seemingly random nature? The sense that it could strike any of us without warning? That explanation seems unlikely, given that other equally random dangers pose a greater risk. Is it because terrorism is the product of human volition, an explicit act of malevolence? This may have something to do with our tendency to overreact, yet other equally heinous acts don't seem to transfix society in the same way.
Or was it the intrusion of an act of wanton violence into an event -- the Boston Marathon -- that is supposed to be celebratory and fun? Or do we react viscerally to terrorism because such acts force us to think -- however reluctantly -- about the rage, animosity, and alienation that others feel towards us?
I don't know. But I cannot help but think that our political leaders have been letting us down ever since 9/11. Instead of teaching Americans that that actual risk from terrorism was minimal, they have kept us disrobing in security lines, obsessing over every bizarre jihadi utterance, and constantly fretting about the Next Big One. An entire industry of "terrorism experts" has arisen to keep us on the edge of our seats, even though many other dangers pose a far greater risk. The result of this obsession has been catastrophic: a failed effort to nation-build in Afghanistan, a wholly misbegotten war in Iraq, and an enormous distraction from any number of other issues -- education, climate, energy, the economy -- whose mismanagement will ultimately claim far more lives and create far more immiseration than those two misguided and angry young brothers did.
I do not mean to trivialize what happened last week. Four innocent people died, and many more were grievously hurt. Finding the persons responsible was necessary, and I'm as happy as anyone else that they are no longer at large. But the brutal reality of human existence is that it is fragile, and there are no guarantees. Bad things do happen to good people, and it is the task of our political leaders to help us keep our heads even when awful things occur. The grossly disproportionate reaction to the Marathon attacks tells me that our political system is increasingly incapable of weighing dangers intelligently and allocating resources in a sensible manner. Unless we get better at evaluating dangers and responding to them appropriately, we are going to focus too much time and attention on a few bad things because they happen to be particularly vivid, and not enough on the problems on which many more lives ultimately depend.
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I was up early this morning to get ready for a conference presentation at Harvard only to discover that Boston and the surrounding suburbs were in lockdown and that the university was closed for the day. Like most of you, I've been following Twitter and other news sources as law enforcement officials seek to corner the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. Blogging during a rapidly developing story can be dicey, but here are a few quick thoughts.
As I tweeted a couple of hours ago, knowing the suspects' origins doesn't tell you what their motives were. Let's assume that the two Tsarnaev brothers really did it (which is certainly where the publically available evidence seems to point). The fact that they were of Chechen origin raises various possibilities, but at this point in time we have no idea if their actions were inspired by Chechen nationalism, by anger at America, by some weird personal animosity or desire for glory, by religion or by something entirely different. The man who conducted the Virginia Tech massacre, Seung Hui-Cho, was a South Korean national, but his actions stemmed from mental illness rather than his national or ethnic identity. Until we know more, inferences about motive based on the suspects' origins are little more than guesses.
Whatever their motives were, it certainly doesn't appear to be some sort of well-oiled terrorist plot. As one tweeter I read noted, a sophisticated and well-financed terrorist organization doesn't try to stick up a 7-11 a couple of days after the attack. To see in this tragedy some rebirth of al Qaeda or "terrorists of global reach" seems misplaced, at least based on what we know now.
But as I suggested a couple of days ago, that observation doesn't change our situation very much. Given the nature of destructive technology -- in this case, fairly primitive bombs -- and the fact that there will always be a few people with a destructive agenda of some kind, there are always going to be senseless acts of violence. Governments and society at large can and should take reasonable measures to reduce that risk -- and yes, a saner approach to gun regulation would help -- but 100 percent safety isn't possible. Fortunately, the odds that any of us will ever experience a direct encounter with this sort of violence are still vanishingly small. Even if you're a police officer or a soldier, the odds are in your favor. For the rest of us, we are still remarkably safe by historic standards. And Americans are much, much safer than people in many other places.
And remember, four people have now died in Boston (not counting the dead suspect), but some fifteen people died in Texas when a fertilizer plant blew up. The world is not foolproof. Bad things do happen. That bedrock reality is not even interesting; what matters is that we recognize dangers for what they are, calibrate them properly, and respond to them intelligently.
P.S.: Continued kudos to the law enforcement agencies dealing with this problem, who identified the suspects with remarkable speed and have handled an extremely difficult situation with calm but decisive measures. Cable TV? Not so much.
Update: As I've watched today's events and pondered further, I've become convinced that public officials in Boston erred by locking down the City and most surrounding suburbs for an entire day. There may be a good explanation for this decision, but it hasn't been provided yet. The economic cost has been enormous (by one estimate about $1 billion), and it sets a worrisome precedent if a 19 year old fugitive can paralyze an entire metropolitan region. We didn't shut down DC when the snipers were operating there, and we didn't shut down Los Angeles when a renegade and heavily armed police officer was a fugitive. This response also belies our insistence that we're tough and we won't be intimidated. On the contrary: we look skittish and scared. I suspect public officials were deathly afraid of further violence, and of being blamed later for not taking precautions. We'll see. But I worry that potential copycats will be inspired rather than deterred by the combination of media frenzy and governmental overreaction.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
There's a terrific piece in the National Journal today, adding up the costs of the "war on terror" and pointing out that unlike some other costly wars in American history, this one has produced almost no economic benefits. That is, unless you think people standing in TSA lines are using those idle minutes (hours?) to dream up lots of innovative new ideas that will fire up the U.S. economy. I rather doubt it.
If we had a rational discourse on this subject, it ought to provoke two questions. First, how did we get into this mess in the first place? Specifically, what were the U.S. policies that contributed to the rise of groups like Al Qaeda, and made it difficult-to-impossible to head them off before they hit us? (You'd think the 9/11 Commission would have tackled this question head on, but of course that proved too controversial for them). This subject hasn't been wholly neglected since 9/11 (i.e., there was some discussion of the familiar "why do they hate us?" question), but even raising the question could get you accused of being someone who "blamed America first." So hardly anybody asked if maybe 9/11 was also a wake-up call, and that there were some aspects of U.S. foreign policy that needed to be rethought. Of course, raising the question doesn't necessarily mean that the policies that contributed to Al Qaeda's rise (e.g., stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, unconditional support for Israel, propping up the Mubarak regime in Egypt, etc.) were necessarily wrong, but it does suggest that these policies were more expensive than we previously believed.
The second question would be: which responses to 9/11 have worked well, and which policies have proven to be costly failures? Ideally, the United States ought to conduct a ruthless assessment of the post-9/11 response, in order to determine -- to the extent possible -- which of the post 9/11 policy changes were effective and which were not. The purpose here isn't a witch-hunt directed at former government officials, as I assume that even the neocons who led us blindly into Iraq believed that this decision was in the best interests of the country. But now, nearly ten years later, we ought to be mature enough to recognize that some of the actions we took after 9/11 weren't that smart, while some other responses turned out to be quite effective. And both ends of the political spectrum should be open to revising their views: some policies abhorred by liberals (such as electronic eavesdropping) may actually have been a net positive, while some actions favored by hardline conservatives (such as waterboarding and other forms of torture) should be seen as misguided failures.
That is how a mature great power would deal with the vast and costly response that began on 9/11: it would try to learn the right lessons from the past decade so that it did better the next time it faced an unexpected challenge. But in the polarized, partisan, and fact-free world of contemporary policy discourse, how likely is that?
Jet travel still strikes me as slightly miraculous, and despite having visited over forty countries, I still get a certain gee-whiz feeling whenever I'm headed for the international terminal at Logan airport (even though the terminal itself is nothing for Boston to boast about).
As you've probably noticed, however, the Powers That Be are doing their best to destroy that pleasant tingle of anticipation. Just when you thought they couldn't find another way to make air travel more annoying and degrading, somebody comes up with a new method to drive us crazy. So having just flown twelve-plus hours from Boston to Kuwait (via London), I'm going to indulge in a short rant: the Top Five Things that Make Air Travel Infuriating.
1. The Whole Irrational Transportation Security Nightmare.
I have no objection to certain reasonable precautions about jet travel, but we've gone way, way, overboard in our effort to eliminate any and all risks. I'm with Yglesias here: The amount of time being wasted in TSA lines is unconscionable and is probably not making us significantly safer. Not only is an enormous amount of valuable time being wasted, but there's also the sheer indignity of being herded like cattle, forced to partially disrobe, and then poked or patted to make sure we don't have a box cutter or a lump of plastique hidden in our shorts.
And what about the creepy symbolism of the latest scanner machines? You enter the booth and are told to assume the classic "hands-up" position. It's a nice way of making the entire traveling population feel like suspects, thereby feeding our collective paranoia and giving al Qaeda and its ilk another symbolic victory. Osama may be hiding in a cave somewhere, but he's still got us trembling in our socks, clutching our beltless pants, as we go through the checkpoints. And you just know that it's going to get worse: no bureaucrat or elected official will ever relax the current procedures (for fear that a terrorist plot might succeed and make them look really, really, stupid). Instead, we'll just keep adding layers and restrictions in response both to future attempts and to new dangers that we just dream up for ourselves.
But I'm a reasonable guy, and I understand that others have different cost-benefit calculations than I do. I'd be willing to walk through naked if they could just get us all through in a reasonable amount of time. At Logan yesterday, it took nearly 20 minutes to get through the TSA checkpoint, and this was at 6:45 in the morning and the line wasn't even that long. And none of this is preventing a repeat of 9/11, because locking the cockpit doors has eliminated the danger that a terrorist will commander the aircraft and fly it into a building. It's mostly our elected officials covering their tails: they don't want to get blamed if one day a plane does go down due to terrorist action. But making it nearly impossible to attack an airplane isn't going to stop terrorism, it will just lead them to go after other, softer targets.
2. Marginal Pricing
I'm hardly the first person to complain about this, but airlines have become masters at charging us for everything while doing less and less themselves. We check ourselves in at "self-serve" kiosks; we carry our own bags on and off the plane, and most of the time we bring our own food too. Having cut services to the bone, airlines do more "upselling" than a sleazy car salesman. I checked in at a self-service kiosk a few months ago, and was given three options for "upgrading" my flight (each for a different fee). If I had been willing to pay enough, those generous folks at the airline would have moved me to first class, let me check my bag for free, and zipped me through the VIP express line at the security checkpoint. This is another reason why the situation is only get worse: make air travel unpleasant enough, and some people will pay extra to reduce the irritation back to a bearable level. We are in effect being asked to trade money for sanity.
And then there's my personal favorite: charging you a hefty chunk of change to go on an earlier flight. You show up early for your flight, and there's an empty seat on an earlier departure. Nobody is going to use that seat if you don't take it. It's in the airline's interest to put you on the earlier flight, because that will open up a seat on the later flight and maybe somebody else will want it (i.e., they had to make an unexpected trip, or they missed a connection and need a later flight). So everybody wins if they just put you on the earlier plane, except the airline will going to charge you at least $50 bucks for doing something that is already in their interest. Of course, they do have to cover the cost of printing another boarding pass, which means the net profit on this transaction is probably about $49.99. And yet still they keep losing money. And don't get me started about the impenetrability (from the consumer's point of view) of the whole ticket pricing policy...
3. The Nanny State
Rules the Air.
Has anyone done a study of the number of fatalities that have been produced by someone landing with their seat backs reclined, or with their tray tables not in the "fully closed and locked position?" I doubt it, yet airlines keep going to enormous lengths to protect us from the most unlikely contingencies. Airlines have long insisted that you can't use PDAs during takeoff, landing, or in flight, based on the unverified idea that this might somehow affect the operation of the aircraft. Except that some carriers now want to equip airliners to allow people to talk on cell phones doing the flight, which I predict will eventually lead to fisticuffs at forty thousand feet.
And the latest indignity is the demand that you remove earbuds or headphones before takeoff or twenty minutes before landing. Presumably this is so you can hear the crew shout instructions in the event of a crash. Plus, the flight attendants now insist that you turn off your Kindle, presumably so that you're not so engrossed reading when the plane goes down that you fail to heed the crew's instructions. I don't blame the flight crew; they are just doing their jobs and enforcing the rules. But can they just meet me halfway? If the plane crashes, I promise that I'll drop what I'm reading, take off my headphones, and do whatever you tell me. Really.
4. You DON'T Control
the Channel; You DON'T control the volume.
One feature that makes airports less and less appealing are those ubiquitous video monitors, usually set to either CNN or Fox. Instead of being allowed to read or converse in peace, you get bombarded by loud and grating announcers instead. There's no escape unless you can go to a business class lounge, although sometimes you'll find a TV on their too. Last week I was forced to sit through an entire episode of CNN's "Parker/Spitzer," because that's what was on the set above my seat in the waiting lounge. Moving does no good, because there are monitors everywhere. At least it wasn't O'Reilly or Wolf Blitzer.....
The Brits, by the way, have a much better idea. At Heathrow's Terminal 5, there are big video screens reporting the latest BBC news, with a video crawl providing text along with the images. You can watch if you want, but your eardrums don't get pummeled while you're either catching a nap or trying to concentrate on your book.
5. Forty pounds of
Carry-On in a Twenty-Pound Overhead Compartment.
Now that airlines are charging us to check bags, it naturally makes more sense for people to use carry-on bags and avoid the fee. You also miss waiting around for your luggage and eliminate the chance that you end up in Seoul while your bag enjoys an unscheduled visit to Stockholm. But the size of the overhead bins didn't change along with this new pricing policy, and despite some half-hearted efforts to regulate the size of carry-on bags, every flight I'm on these days seems to feature a bunch of unhappy passengers trying to cram duffle bags the size of Madagascar into the overhead bin. Tempers flare, nerves fray, and it takes twice as long to get on and off the aircraft as it should.
Granted, none of these complaints are as significant as issues of war, peace, national prosperity, and the like, and I'm sure I'll be less grumpy when my jet lag wears off. I fully realize that it's a hell of lot easier and safer to visit far-flung places now than it was a few decades ago, to say nothing of a few centuries ago. So I'm genuinely thankful for what transportation technology has wrought. But now I'd like some geniuses to get to work on making the whole experience a little less corrosive to the human spirit. Like I said, I still like to travel, and even like to fly. But I have the distinct fear that by the time I retire, getting on an airplane will involve more preparations than open-heart surgery, and recovery will take about as long.
Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
Despite the seemingly damning evidence against him, none of us actually knows for certain if Faisal Shahzad really did try to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He has reportedly told authorities that he did it (which is pretty convincing), the car involved apparently belonged to him (ditto), and he tried to flee the country immediately afterwards (hmm...). If I were an attorney I wouldn’t look forward to defending him, but his guilt or innocence is ultimately for a jury to decide.
But let’s assume he did, which doesn’t seem to be a very daring assumption. Obviously, the good news here is that he was an incompetent bungler: he didn’t know how to build a workable bomb and he didn’t know how to cover his tracks. And this seems to be the case even though he says he received some training from jihadists in Waziristan. Unfortunately, we can’t assume that all like-minded individuals will be equally befuddled. Timothy McVeigh and his associates were hardly world-class master criminals, and look at what they managed to do in Oklahoma City.
And then there's the question of why he tried to do this. Based on the still-sketchy information I’ve read so far, it seems likely that he wanted to kill Americans in New York City because he didn’t like our killing people in Central Asia. (Most of our victims are suspected terrorists, but we sometimes kill innocent civilians by mistake). Whether he was acting alone or in cahoots with Pakistani extremists, his abortive attack was probably a response to our efforts to eradicate terrorist groups in Pakistan via drone strikes and other special operations. In short, he decided to enlist in the "war on terror," but not on America's side.
If this is correct (and I'm prepared to revise my views as we learn more about his alleged motives), it would remind us that illegitimate violence directed at innocent Americans is mostly about what we do and less about "who we are." (This was also true of the suicide bomber who killed a cadre of CIA agents in Afghanistan earlier this year). To say this is not to argue that what the US is doing is necessarily wrong, however, or to sign up for the "blame America first" crowd. Whether the current drone war in Pakistan is a good idea is a separate question that involves both cost-benefit analysis (i.e., on balance, is it weakening al Qaeda or not?) and moral judgment. And yes, even realists can worry about morality.
Instead, recognizing "why they hate us" is critical to understanding the overall price tag associated with America's global military presence and interventionist foreign policy. When the United States is waging war in some far corner of the world, some people aren’t going to like it and will try to make us pay. It's a very good thing that this guy failed, but it would be naïve to believe that we can maintain our present global posture and be wholly immune from attacks here at home.
It also means that we should continue to analyze and debate whether our current counter-terror strategy is the right one. On the one hand, one could argue (as this BBC report does), that drone strikes are disrupting militant leadership and organization in places like Waziristan, and thus making these organizations less lethal or effective. The fact that Shahzad seems to have been poorly trained and forced to act more-or-less on his own could be seen as a sign that this aspect of our strategy is working.
But on the other hand, our continuing military engagement there also reinforces the accusation that the United States is engaged in illegitimate interference in foreign (i.e., Muslim) lands, an argument that Osama bin Laden has repeatedly emphasized and that appears to resonate with people like Shahzad. Our ultimate goal, therefore, ought to be to lower our footprint (including the shadow cast by Predator and Reaper strikes) as soon as we possibly can.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Am I the only person -- well, besides Glenn Greenwald and Kevin Poulson -- who thinks the "cyber-warfare" business may be overblown? It’s clear the U.S. national security establishment is paying a lot more attention to the issue, and colleagues of mine -- including some pretty serious and level-headed people -- are increasingly worried by the danger of some sort of "cyber-Katrina." I don't dismiss it entirely, but this sure looks to me like a classic opportunity for threat-inflation.
Mind you, I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of shenanigans going on in cyber-space, or that various forms of cyber-warfare don't have military potential. So I'm not arguing for complete head-in-the-sand complacency. But here’s what makes me worry that the threat is being overstated.
First, the whole issue is highly esoteric -- you really need to know a great deal about computer networks, software, encryption, etc., to know how serious the danger might be. Unfortunately, details about a number of the alleged incidents that are being invoked to demonstrate the risk of a "cyber-Katrina," or a cyber-9/11, remain classified, which makes it hard for us lay-persons to gauge just how serious the problem really was or is. Moreover, even when we hear about computers being penetrated by hackers, or parts of the internet crashing, etc., it’s hard to know how much valuable information was stolen or how much actual damage was done. And as with other specialized areas of technology and/or military affairs, a lot of the experts have a clear vested interest in hyping the threat, so as to create greater demand for their services. Plus, we already seem to have politicians leaping on the issue as a way to grab some pork for their states.
Second, there are lots of different problems being lumped under a single banner, whether the label is "cyber-terror" or "cyber-war." One issue is the use of various computer tools to degrade an enemy’s military capabilities (e.g., by disrupting communications nets, spoofing sensors, etc.). A second issue is the alleged threat that bad guys would penetrate computer networks and shut down power grids, air traffic control, traffic lights, and other important elements of infrastructure, the way that internet terrorists (led by a disgruntled computer expert) did in the movie Live Free and Die Hard. A third problem is web-based criminal activity, including identity theft or simple fraud (e.g., those emails we all get from someone in Nigeria announcing that they have millions to give us once we send them some account information). A fourth potential threat is “cyber-espionage”; i.e., clever foreign hackers penetrate Pentagon or defense contractors’ computers and download valuable classified information. And then there are annoying activities like viruses, denial-of-service attacks, and other things that affect the stability of web-based activities and disrupt commerce (and my ability to send posts into FP).
This sounds like a rich menu of potential trouble, and putting the phrase "cyber" in front of almost any noun makes it sound trendy and a bit more frightening. But notice too that these are all somewhat different problems of quite different importance, and the appropriate response to each is likely to be different too. Some issues -- such as the danger of cyber-espionage -- may not require elaborate technical fixes but simply more rigorous security procedures to isolate classified material from the web. Other problems may not require big federal programs to address, in part because both individuals and the private sector have incentives to protect themselves (e.g., via firewalls or by backing up critical data). And as Greenwald warns, there may be real costs to civil liberties if concerns about vague cyber dangers lead us to grant the NSA or some other government agency greater control over the Internet.
Third, this is another issue that cries out for some comparative cost-benefit analysis. Is the danger that some malign hacker crashes a power grid greater than the likelihood that a blizzard would do the same thing? Is the risk of cyber-espionage greater than the potential danger from more traditional forms of spying? Without a comparative assessment of different risks and the costs of mitigating each one, we will allocate resources on the basis of hype rather than analysis. In short, my fear is not that we won't take reasonable precautions against a potential set of dangers; my concern is that we will spend tens of billions of dollars protecting ourselves against a set of threats that are not as dangerous as we are currently being told they are.
I hasten to add that this isn't my area of expertise and I may be completely wrong about it. What I would really like, therefore, is for an objective, blue-ribbon commission to look carefully at this question. Here's a possible example of what I have in mind, but I can't tell how reliable its conclusions are likely to be. Why? Because I can't tell how many of its members are people with a stake in the outcome. Makes me wish somebody like Richard Feynman was still around to chair it.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Here's a quick recommendation for all you terrorism mavens out there. The Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) has a fascinating and very useful website up and running, which you can access here.
According to its operators (a program headed by Professor Robert Pape), the site contains all known instances of suicide terrorism between 1981 and 2001, and will eventually be brought completely up to date. Three features of the site are especially interesting. First, it lets you perform interactive searches along multiple dimensions (location of attacks, the target type, the weapon used, demographic and biographical characteristics of attackers, etc. For example, if you wanted to know how many suicide attacks were conducted by women in Kashmir between 1995 and 2000, you can enter those parameters and it will give you the results. Second, the site provides the external sources used to document each attack, so that you can check up on the coding of any specific incident. Third, each incident in linked to GPS data on location, so that you can explore the geographic patterns of contemporary suicide terrorism. On the latter point, by the way, the data shows that almost all these attacks are concentrated in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Afpak, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine, a finding consistent with Pape's well-known argument that suicide terrorism is primarily a response to perceived foreign occupations.
All in all, a very useful tool. But the skeptic in me has to ask the following question: will the existence of databases like this one tend to feed our fascination with conventional terrorism, a threat that is almost certainly exaggerated and overblown? (WMD terrorism is another matter, although we may be overstating that danger too). That's not a criticism of the Chicago Project -- which is doing excellent work -- it's just a warning to us all not to fixate on a phenomenon just because it's something we can count.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Declaring that "the buck stops with me," President Obama announced a set of new directives in response to the foiled bombing of Northwest Flight 253 by the now-infamous "underpants bomber." The list of presidential orders is mostly unexceptionable, and may even make a repeat performance less likely. Of course, if al Qaeda is even remotely strategic, trying an exact repeat of this attempt would be silly. Instead, they'll study the new procedures, look for holes in them, and try some new variation. The good news is that air travel will still be incredibly safe, and no sensible person should alter their normal travel plans because they are worried about the "terrorist threat."
What's missing from Obama's list of new initiatives is any sense that U.S. foreign policy might need some rethinking too. There are several dimensions to the terrorism problem, only one of which are the various measures we take to "harden the target" here at home. Why? Because bombing airliners and other acts of terrorism are just tactics; they aren't al Qaeda's real raison d'être. Their goal, as veteran foreign affairs correspondent William Pfaff recently reminded us, is trying to topple various Arab governments that al Qaeda regards as corrupt and beholden to us and establish some unified Islamic caliphate. As Pfaff notes, this is a fanciful objective, but still one that can cause us a certain amount of trouble and grief. And if they can get us to act in ways that undermine those governments (even when we think we are trying to help them), then their objectives are advanced and ours are hindered.
So one key dimension of the problem is to not act in ways that inspire more people to want to undertake such actions, or at the very least to be aware that some of our policies might have that effect and that we should not continue them unless we are damn sure that the benefits outweigh the costs. And what's troubling is the extent to which the Obama administration appears to be continuing many of the same activities that have inspired anti-American extremism and undermined the governments that do seem to like us, without much consideration about the balance of costs and benefits that this may involve.
To continue with this gloomy theme: the underpants bomber ultimately failed, but al Qaeda did conduct a successful suicide bomb attack in Khost that killed eight people, including several of the CIA's top al Qaeda experts. The perpetrator of that attack was a Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who had been recruited by the CIA (via Jordanian intelligence) to infiltrate al Qaeda. After providing us with some useful information (as any double-agent must to gain credibility), he was allowed to meet with a large number of CIA analysts, leading to the fateful attack on December 30.
In terms of the actual effort to defeat al Qaeda, that event might even be more significant than the Flight 253 affair, because it suggests that some of our top analysts were out-thought by the very organization they were trying to penetrate and destroy. It has also shed new light on the close connections between the CIA and Jordanian intelligence, which is hardly something that King Abdullah's regime needs right now. So while it's important to learn why an obvious suspect got a visa and boarded a plane to the United States, it may be even more important to figure out how some of our best counter-terrorism operatives got gulled so successfully.
One more thing. I noted yesterday that al-Balawi's brother told reporters that the doctor had been radicalized by the Israeli assault on Gaza last year. Today, Newsweek released an interview with the double-agent's wife, which makes it clear that she shares his opposition to U.S. policy in the region but traces his changing views to an earlier event. According to Newsweek:
Al-Balawi 'started to change,' says his wife, after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. By 2004, she says, he began to talk to her about his strong belief in the need for violent jihad against Western occupiers of Muslim lands."
My point is not to rehash the whole debate over the invasion of Iraq (although to be honest, I don't think there's much debate to be had over the folly of that particular decision). My point is simply to reiterate that any serious effort to deal with our terrorism problem has to be multi-faceted, and has to include explicit consideration of the things we do that may encourage violent, anti-American movements. Only a complete head-in-the-sand approach to the issue would deny the connection between various aspects of U.S. foreign and military policy (military interventions, targeted assassinations, unconditional support for Israel, cozy relations with Arab dictatorships, etc.) and the fact that groups like al Qaeda keep finding people like al-Balawi to recruit to their cause.
By itself, that mere fact does not mean that U.S. foreign policy is wrong. As I said a few days ago, one could make a case that our policy is mostly right, and that these problems are just the price we have to pay for them. But instead of having a serious debate on this question, we mostly ignore the possibility that our own actions might be making the problem worse, or we accuse anyone who does raise it of trying to "blame America first."
President Obama's briefing yesterday wasn't the place for that discussion, but I'd like to think that somebody in his administration is still asking the question. Since that infamous (and increasingly inconsequential) Cairo speech, however, there's not much evidence of that.
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Am I the only person who sees a parallel between the furor over the Scottish decision to release convicted Libyan intelligence officer Abdel Basset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, and the heated debate over whether to investigate possible criminal misconduct during the Bush administration "torture regime?"
With respect to the former, many people are upset by the decision to release al-Megrahi -- who has terminal prostate cancer and only a few months to live -- because they do not think an act of mercy was warranted in his case. Fair enough; reasonable people can legitimately disagree about whether the dying man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing deserves any form of clemency. But the real anger stems from the suspicion that al-Megrahi's release was part of some larger deal, and that British officials traded the release for commercial or political advantages. In other words, opponents of the decision to release him are incensed because they believe government officials let broader political or business considerations interfere with an important issue of criminal justice.
Yet those who oppose an open-ended investigation into what the Bush administration did -- which might eventually lead to the prosecution of top officials -- are doing the same thing for which British officials are being criticized: they are saying that politics should outweigh the requirements of law and justice. In essence, they are saying that broader political considerations should trump the normal operations of the criminal justice system. Yet I suspect most of the people making this argument would be outraged if it turned out that the British government decided to release al Megrahi in part to cultivate Libyan business or secure other political advantages.
For a country that claims to revere the "rule of law," this really isn't a hard issue conceptually. Attorney General Holder's task is to determine whether laws may have been broken, and whether an investigation of the alleged wrongdoing is warranted. Once that investigation has been conducted, he then has decide if he has a strong enough case to warrant prosecution. If he thinks he does, the case goes forward, and defendants get their day in court. Politics isn't supposed to have anything to do with this process (though a sensible prosecutor would probably be especially reluctant to bring a weak case against prominent senior officials). Finally, if any defendants are found guilty, the president could then step in and issue a pardon, if he felt that doing so was in the best interests of the nation.
Note that it is still possible to criticize and debate every aspect of this process, but not by invoking partisanship, political expediency, or the need to "look forward rather than backward." People can disagree about whether there is enough evidence of wrongdoing to warrant further investigation (though I think the recent revelations make it hard to make the case that there is simply no basis for a further investigation). If AG Holder decides to indict anyone, or if he declines to do so, people will undoubtedly disagree about what he should have done so based on the available evidence. And if the cases go to trial we can argue about them too. If the defendants are acquitted, people will say the case should never have been brought; if convicted, some will claim they were railroaded. If people are convicted and the president pardons them, no doubt there would be heated discussions about whether this was appropriate or not.
But the key point is that if you genuinely believe in the rule of law, you can't invoke political expediency as a guide to whether possible crimes should be investigated and prosecuted. And the fact that the Attorney-General has decided to go forward should be seen as very positive sign, because it shows that he is willing to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities even if it is politically inconvenient for the president who appointed him. I have no doubt that the president would prefer to "look forward," because an investigation and/or prosecution will drive both the CIA and the right-wing media types crazy and because he's got enough alligators to wrestle with already. But he also promised us that he would end the politicization of the Department of Justice that his predecessor practiced, and Holder's decision, however inconvenient for Obama, is a reassuring sign that there is still life in the U.S. Constitution.
Am I being -- shall we say, unrealistic -- to stress the rule of law as opposed to the naked exercise of political power? Hardly. Realists have a rather dim view of human nature, which is why we like legitimate, well-ordered governments in which laws and checks and balances exist to keep human frailties in check. The Founding Fathers had a lot of realist instincts, so they constructed a variety of essentially liberal institutions to try to address and contain our worst instincts. Domestic politics in a well-ordered society is a lot nicer than life in the international system, which conspicuously lacks strong institutions and where the rule of law is weak. And that's why we ought to defend the rule of law in this case (and others), and try hard to keep politics out of the discussion.
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The United States has the world's largest economy (so far), and the world's most powerful conventional military forces. It spends about as much on national security than the rest of the world combined, and nearly nine times more than the No. 2 power (China). It has several thousand operational nuclear weapons, each substantially more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. America is further protected from conventional military attack by two enormous oceanic moats, there no great powers in the Western hemisphere, and it hasn’t been invaded since the War of 1812. (A few southerners may want to challenge that last statement, but I'm not going to get into that).
9/11 reminded us American security is not absolute, of course, and the strategic advantages I just outlined are no defense against climate change, pandemic disease, or financial collapse. But surely the United States is about as secure as any great power in modern history. Yet Americans continue to fret about national security, continue to spend far more on national security than any other country does, and continue to believe that our way of life will be imperiled if we do not confront an array of much weaker foes on virtually every continent.
One reason Americans exaggerate security fears is the existence of an extensive cottage industry of professional threatmongers, who deploy a well-honed array of arguments to convince us that we are in fact in grave danger. (The United States is hardly the only country that does this, of course, but the phenomenon is more evident here because its overall strategic position is so favorable). Debunking these claims is easier once you know the basics, so I hereby offer as a public service:
The Threatmonger's Handbook:
(Or, How to Scare Your Fellow Citizens for Fun and Profit.)
Rule #1: Emphasize that small decisions can mark the difference between victory or defeat.
The core logic of threatmongering depends on convincing others that world is highly elastic; that very small policy changes will have dramatic effects on one’s overall position. Threatmongers argue that cancelling some weapons system or failing to take action against some minor danger may leave you vulnerable to a devastating attack. At the same time, spending just a bit more or taking aggressive action now will cause potential threats to dissipate and guarantee security for years to come.
Rule #2: "Everything is connected."
This principle is a corollary to Rule #1: a good threatmonger wants to convince you that events in one area will have far-reaching effects everywhere else. They portray a world where credibility is fragile, where dominos fall easily and where one's allies will be quick to jump on the enemy's bandwagon after a single setback. By the same logic, threatmongers promise that success in one place will quickly lead to further triumphs elsewhere. During the Vietnam War, threatmongers predicted that defeat there would lead to dominos falling all across Southeast Asia and undermine U.S. alliances all over the world (which of course didn't happen). More recently, the architects of the Iraq war argued that toppling Saddam would trigger a wave of democratic transformations across the Middle East and put dictators on notice elsewhere. In a world where everything is connected to everything else, there are no minor problems and nothing can be safely ignored.
Rule #3: Emphasize threats that are inherently impossible to measure.
This principle was the essence of McCarthyism: his claim that communists were infiltrating the U.S. government was impossible to disprove with 100 percent confidence, and it made many Americans fear that a vast network of subversives were secretly at work across the entire country. The problem is that there's no way to know for certain if his accusations were true or not: that flag-waving Boy Scout next door might have been an especially cunning Marxist-Leninist with a truly effective disguise. Today, threatmongers try to scare us by portraying all Muslims as potential subversives, and by suggesting that Western civilization itself is under siege from immigration, the internet, cyberterrorism, or some other covert form of infiltration. And don't forget Rule 3A: when an alleged threat is easy to measure and not really that serious, just classify the information so that nobody finds out.
Rule #4: Portray allies as a liability rather than as an asset.
States normally seek allies in order to pool their assets and make both more secure. Threatmongers see this differently: the more allies you have, the more interests that must be protected and the greater your security requirements actually become. Logically, U.S. defense requirements should be lower because we are allied to some of the world's wealthiest and well-armed states. But the logic of threatmongering suggests the opposite conclusion: as the United States recruits an ever-increasing network of allies, it has to defend more and more places and must therefore worry about an ever-widening array of problems.
Rule #5: Whenever possible, depict opponents as part of a strong and highly cohesive movement, and preferably one united by strong ideological convictions.
This is the flip side of Rule #4: our allies are weak and feckless, but our opponents are always strong, cunning, resolute, and well-organized. During the Cold War, the enemy was "monolithic communism," an image that downplayed the deep schisms within the communist world. Under Bill Clinton, the danger was a motley collection of "rogue states" whose combined capabilities were a tiny fraction of our own and who weren't even in cahoots with one another. George W. Bush went one step further, and placed Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and North Korea in a mythical "axis of evil." Today, other threatmongers rail about the looming danger of "Islamofascism," thereby suggesting that all Islamic groups are part of some vast and well-organized conspiracy. In all these cases, the same basic principle is used to make dangers look bigger than they really are.
Rule #6: "We must act now!"
To a skilled threatmonger, trends are always against us and time is always short. If we do not act soon, we are told, the window of opportunity will close and our security will be compromised forever. This is the mindset that drove Germany's decision to provoke World War I and led the Bush administration to attack Iran in 2003, and those now favor military action against Iran invoke essentially the same logic. They've forgotten Bismarck's warning: preventive war "is committing suicide for fear of death."
Rule #7: Always describe opponents as irrational, unalterably aggressive, and impossible to deter.
If the enemy is aggressive, irrational, and willing to run great risks, then it will take overwhelming superiority to deter them and even that may not be enough. In fact, if the adversary is as nasty as the threatmongers say, then deterrence or containment probably won't work and war is probably inevitable. And if war is going to occur sooner or later, we should look for a favorable opportunity to take them out first. Kenneth Pollock of the Brookings Institution used Rule #7 to perfection in his 2002 book The Threatening Storm, thereby helping convince potentially skeptical liberals that invading Iraq was a good idea.
Rule #8: When it comes to national security, there is no such thing as opportunity costs.
The goal of threatmongering is to convince a country to spend more money on defense or to undertake more aggressive actions in the name of national security. Leaders or citizens may object if they think such a policy might entail real costs or require genuine tradeoffs, so skilled threatmongers often argue that increased military spending will be cost-free (for example, by claiming it will stimulate the economy and create jobs), or by suggesting that military action in one arena will produce lots of positive externalities elsewhere (see Rule #2). At the same time, they will downplay the possibility that military action lead to a costly quagmire or make it impossible to take action elsewhere (see under: Iraq).
Rule #9: Assume that opponents are able to do anything they say they want to do.
One easy way to scare people is to look at your enemies' wildest dreams and assume that they have the capacity to actually bring them about. During the Cold War, threatmongers studied Soviet military writings and argued that the most fantastic Soviet battle plans were an accurate measure of what the Red Army could actually accomplish, even though there were sound military reasons to reject that assessment. Or they took the rabble-rousing rhetoric of revolutionary leaders at face value and assumed that it would be as easy to spread revolution as these radicals thought. Today, threatmongers tell us that Osama bin Laden wants to topple governments throughout the Islamic world and eventually restore the medieval caliphate, even though he is as likely to achieve that goal as I am to win the Wimbledon singles title or make the finals on American Idol. It obviously makes sense to know what an adversary’s objective might be, but only a dedicated threatmonger equates desires with actual capabilities.
And don't forget Rule 9B (the Cheney Corollary): if there is a one percent chance that some bad thing might happen, act as if it is a 100 percent certainty. A purer illustration of threatmongering would be difficult to find.
Rule#10: When challenged, immediately question your critics' patriotism, credentials, or seriousness.
Nothing can disarm critics who claim that the nation is needlessly squandering blood or treasure more effectively than accusing them of being unpatriotic, naïve, excessively idealistic, or insufficiently "serious." And if that doesn't work, bring up Neville Chamberlain.
These tried-and-true methods do not work all of the time, of course, but they are undeniably effective. This is partly because a few leaders turn out to be hard to deter, sometimes seemingly minor events do have large consequences, and losing a war or being forced to compromise with an adversary is never a pleasant experience. In short, there are good reasons for any country to national security seriously, which is why realists like me oppose pacifism, radical disarmament, or reflexive appeasement. But squandering resources is never a good idea, and exaggerating dangers can be as harmful to a state's long-term interests as understating them, especially when it leads to wars of choice that turn out badly. So when you see arguments like this being used to justify hawkish policies, hang onto your skepticism (and your wallet).
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President Bush defended his presidency yesterday by noting that "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
Depending on your definition of "terrorism," this claim is about as accurate as his claims about Iraqi WMD. See here or here. And it's worth remembering that the only major foreign terrorist attack on American soil in our history occurred on Bush's watch, and anti-American terrorist groups have conducted major attacks in Jordan, Indonesia, Spain, and a number of other countries since 9/11. I think the Bush administration did some smart things after 9/11 (such as ousting al Qaeda from its safe haven in Afghanistan) and I'm glad that we haven't suffered another attack, but the fact there hasn't been any large-scale foreign terrorist attack on American soil is an insufficient criterion for judging the "war on terror," not to mention an entire presidency.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.