What Prevents Terrorism?
(Posted by Jeff Porten)
Jeff Porten here, on Jim’s day, and still recovering from the crap that laid me out for the past few days. So this is a note of apology for the late post, and notice for Patrick and anyone else who wants to know who’s writing.
I haven’t been keeping up with the news as much the last few days, but as best as I can tell the world is still losing its collective mind. Random searches in New York, for the first time ever. An innocent man slain at point-blank range by police on the London Tube. New attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh. And the steady drumbeat of bombings in Iraq, which have become so common that I doubt most people consider them to be breaking news.
All of this is taken as part of living in the brave new world, in dangerous times, where there are evil men out there who would kill us. They do not have the power we wield to invade our countries and overthrow our governments, so they resort to bombs and the inculcation of terror. Our leaders tell us that this is new, that they will put a stop to it, and that when they do we can stop being afraid.
Perhaps the key to Londoners’ calm is that they know full well that this is old and unstoppable, for they remember, remember the fifth of November, of gunpowder treason and plot, exactly four centuries ago. Perhaps, being British, they remember the IRA. Or perhaps, being European, they remember Brigate Rosse or Epanastatiki Organosi 17 Noemvri.
What is certain, however, is that Americans have forgotten April 19, 1995, when we were attacked by our own. We have forgotten the weeks following that attack, when many Americans jumped to the conclusion that we had been attacked by foreign terrorists. I wish I had a copy of my call at the time to a national NPR show, during which I rebuked the experts who were talking purely in terms of international terrorism.
After Oklahoma City, we had no one to invade, and so we turned to the rule of law. We prosecuted the attackers as criminals, and put one of them to death. In contrast, after Ground Zero, we invaded and overthrew two countries and passed dozens of laws to tighten up domestic surveillence on anyone living on U.S. soil.
Was Oklahoma City less important? Her dead less valuable to us? OKC led to changes in the American legal system, and inspired some (mostly stillborn) measures to watch Americans more closely. 9/11, in turn, led to the most radical reshaping of American foreign policyand some might argue, domesticsince the close of World War II. The difference was in the origin of the attacks. The difference was in our leadership. The difference was in ourselves.
Today, the watchword for any move by government is claiming it keeps the people safe from terrorists. We rarely stop to ask what we mean when we say that. The tactics of terrorism are as old as humanity. This is not to justify the attacker; I have no interest in painting a sympathetic picture of such vicious animals. This is merely to be a student of history.
Nor is it possible to take away their weapons. Gunpowder can be made from urine. Explosives can be made from excrement, as Oklahoma should remind us. I have it on good authority that a suitable substitute for napalm can be made with gasoline, Ivory Soap, and a cheese grater. Granted, such weapons are crude and less lethal than the modern varieties; however, since America continues to be one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of small arms, we can rest easy knowing that only the most truly impoverished terrorists will be forced to resort to such measures.
Sowhat should we do? If weapons are eternal, if the will to engage in terrorist acts is eternal, do we then simply resign ourselves to it?
The answer to that, of course, is no. But the correct answer is not to declare war on terror, because America has a poor track record with such things. We have waged wars on drugs, on poverty, and on crime. There are many reasons why we have lost these wars, but the core reason in my view is that intoxication, subjugation, and evil are part of the human condition.
But can all crime be attributed to evil? To believe that, you have to believe that Americans are among the most evil people in the world, based on our incarceration record. Perhaps we are. Or perhaps you can pay heed to history and human nature, and decide that people can commit evil acts, and can become evil, when their condition becomes sufficiently desperate.
Brian took a good stab at discussing successful preventive measures to crime, but to my mind he’s answering the wrong question. The question is not to prevent motivated criminals from harming us; at that stage, we are fighting a rearguard effort and all it takes is a criminal to be smart or lucky. Given sufficient trials, we will eventually be exposed to the smart and the lucky.
The weak link in the chain is in the number of trials. We may believe that all those who would attack us are irredeemably evil and were always thus; if that is true, then we must engage in perpetual war to exterminate our enemies. Or we may believe that some forms of evil are born in nurture and not in nature, and do what we can to stem their conversion. We will still need to fight the naturally evil; they exist, they will remain, and they need to be countered. But we are all aware that the evil can be assisted by the impressionable, the desperate, and the foolish. Jones and Manson and many others have shown us that on the small scale; Hitler has shown that entire countries are not immune.
When we fight al-Qaeda, an army of 20,000, outspent by the American military by 1000 to 1, publicly befriended by none, are we fighting an army of the evil or the desperate? Of its leaders there can be no question; but what makes them leaders but that they have followers?
What Brian got right is the phrasing of his question, in asking about the prevention of crime. For terrorism is just a form of crime, one that is carried out for political ends. Why do we afford a certain kind of criminal so much credence, tell him that he alone is so threatening and dangerous to us that we would reconfigure our nation in response to his actions?
We need to remember that terrorism is crime, plain and simple. We are Americans. We and our true allies fight crime with justice; we know whom our true allies are because they do not shame us. We combat criminals with the rule of law. We were among the first to declare the equality of humankind before the law, and while we have been imperfect in our implementation, it is to the strength of this virtue that we owe the respect humankind affords us. For a millennium, nations wished to be feared; we were the first among many which gave reason to be loved.
When we forget that, when we declare war and start torturing our presumed enemies, when we deprive them of their freedoms without the due process that we have enshrined in our law, when we pretend that we need not act according to our ideals because we have the firepower to enforce our will, then we have sacrificed something indefinable which we are putatively defending. We are destroying the nation in order to save it.
I remember 9/11. I remember being out on the street in Washington DC, on an excrutiatingly beautiful day, all of us trying to make sense of the day’s events. I remember thinking how normal it was. I remember thinking, for the first time, what it meant to be a superpower. We were too strong; our enemies, unlike our enemies of the last great war, to feeble to harm us as a nation. They could blood us, they could kill us, but they couldn’t destroy us.
But that was before I saw military commandos riding the Metro. That was before we took a page from the Soviet playbook and started demanding papers. That was before Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and an entire nation living on Guiliani Time.
We are a people with a long history. We are a people who are used to the exercise of force, who are comforted by our use of it. We should know that force can prevent acts of terror, but not the will to terror itself. We should know that force can turn our enemies into the Hydra. But we are frightened, and we are more than willing to trade our liberties for temporary safety.
What prevents terrorism is justice. The show of force is simple, its costs borne by our voluntary defenders and our involuntary targets, and temporarily effective. But it is the pursuit of justice that chokes off the support of evil, that leaves it to founder, and makes its destruction possible. It is the pursuit of justice that made us who we are. It is what we claim to be willing to die for in the abstract, but history will show this to be a time when Americans mouthed the words and forgot the lessons. When we refused to pay the price and forced others to bear the burden.
We were built on the rule of law, trusting in the civil liberties of a free people, using our military force as a true option of last resort. Our power was built on the backs of the millions who came here believing they could find such values here. It is a slow, difficult, and dangerous way to live. It served us well for two centuries. The United States may be able to survive its repudiation, but America cannot.