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Sunday, October 22, 2006

What is the threat?

Recently, Glenn Greenwald wrote a good essay, Is protection from threats the highest political value?, that looked at the trade offs between threat reduction and expansion of executive power. That's a good topic, especially nowadays with Bush claiming more and more power because (in Greenwald's characterization) "the threat posed by The Terrorists is so grave and mortal".

But is it? This blog has argued before, and will argue now, that the threat is actually quite small. Or to quote Juan Cole:
... we now know that serious al-Qaeda is probably only a few hundred men now, and at most a few thousand. Look at who exactly did the London subway bombing. A few guys in a gym in Leeds. That magnitude of threat just would not keep a "War on Terror" in business. The embassy bombings, the Cole, and September 11 itself were done by tiny poorly funded cells that functioned as terror boutiques to accomplish a specific spectacular operation. They don't prove a worldwide, large organization. They prove tiny effective cells. Most of what the Pentagon does and can do is irrelevant to that kind of threat. You'd be better off with some good FBI agents.
With that in mind, here's an edited version of our comment made over at Belgravia Dispatch.
The Fundamental Error of this decade was a failure to properly assess the threat that the attacks on 9/11 posed. It was an exploitation of a vulnerability, not a sign of strength. The attack, by a mere five guys (per plane), showed that the problem was unsecure pilot cabins - not that Al Qaeda had what appeared to be an Air Force.

Why haven't there been any more 9/11-s? Because the vulnerability was eliminated through a process of passenger screening, arming of pilots, and securing the cabin. Once that became clear, subsequent terrorist plots involving planes did not incorporate taking them over. Instead, all we got were plots to destroy the plane - not use it as a weapon.

Unfortunately, Al Qaeda and the terrorist threat in general, was portrayed as much bigger than its inherent capabilities warranted. (True, they represent whatever threat people willing to commit suicide pose, but that means closing other vulnerabilities and using military force in very narrowly targeted missions - not wholesale invasion of countries.) Remember the Tylenol poisoning a couple of decades ago? Somebody found a vulnerability (unsecured bottles) and exploited it. how powerful was the culprit? No more powerful than any other person. Since anybody can repeat the crime, the indicated action is to close the vulnerability through improved packaging and capture the culprit, but not proclaim that there were killers out in the countryside, followed by a military take-over of the region.

In any event, this failure to properly assess the terrorist threat has lead to pretty much everything else we've witnessed this decade. War in Iraq. Massively increased power of the executive. Use of the inflated threat by Republicans to secure their power.

Isn't that amazing? All because of an improper assessment of the threat.

Even if you disagree with this position, you'll have to admit that it's consistent with the data (no more 9/11's), is based on reason, and should part of the discussion (even if a minority view). But the fact that it has rarely been raised should tell you something about the discourse we've had and continue to have. And that goes for people on both the right and left. This is no Clash of Civilzations, as much as some would like to believe.

That said, we should not be blithe about terrorist attacks. They are a serious problem and should be countered aggressively, through tough police work and whatever-it-takes special ops overseas. But it is not an existential threat to the United States or practically any other country.
The reason this blog harps on this theme is that The Terrorist Threat to the Nation seems so over-inflated and near-imaginary. There has been "analysis" that says Al Qaeda might get a nuclear weapon and so therefore, the Region Must Be Attacked. But whatever level of access that Al Qaeda might obtain, every other country in the world could too (and some corporations and criminal gangs), so where does that leave you? Preemptively invading any country that looks at the U.S. sideways?

It may well come to the point where great destructive power (explosive or biological) can be easily obtained by entities of small size. That will cause a serious reevaluation of how humans conduct themselves - and it won't be solved by having nation-states taking over each other (like Bush's "Freedom Agenda"). It will have to be universal and will be very intrusive. But we are not there yet. If we're lucky, the current "safe" state of affairs will last another 50 or 100 years. And after that, we may discover new technical means of controlling the problem.

This whole fear-and-fight business is similar to how people responded to the "threat" from witches centuries ago. It's like there's been a low-level, subterranean hysteria in this country for half a decade. In the past, such episodes burn out after a number of years and that seems to be starting to happen now, but it's been a strange phenomena to observe.



3 comments

Think of how a real leader could've handled 9/11 (besides going after and getting the guys that did it). A rah-rah America speech focussing on how well ordinary Americans handled the emergency, stayed cool and got themselves and others out, with an amazing savings of lives.

When I first saw what was happening, I thought the death toll would be on the order of 20,000 or so, because of how many people were typically in those buildings. When the first, preliminary, tolls came out at about 6,000, I thought that was amazing -- those people really did themselves proud, kept their cool in an extreme emergency for which they were unprepared, and did amazing things. When the final tallies came out and kept going downward, to the final of just over 3,000, I was impressed at how amazingly well those people had done. I was proud of them -- and that made me proud to be an American.

Then Bush started up: terror, fear, terror, fear "Be very afraid" "we're helpless"... and people bought into it. A lot of that pride went away, sucked away into the black pit of pants-wetting conservative cowardliness. I still am amazed and proud of the way those people on 9/11 handled themselves in a spot I hope never to be in, but the way so many other then caved in cowardness in emulation of our cowardly president still makes me sad.

By Blogger QrazyQat, at 10/22/2006 12:35 PM  

It was an exploitation of a vulnerability, not a sign of strength. The attack, by a mere five guys (per plane), showed that the problem was unsecure pilot cabins - not that Al Qaeda had what appeared to be an Air Force.

Damn straight.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/22/2006 7:48 PM  

"Why haven't there been any more 9/11-s? Because the vulnerability was eliminated through a process of passenger screening, arming of pilots, and securing the cabin. Once that became clear, subsequent terrorist plots involving planes did not incorporate taking them over."


There haven't been any 9-11 attacks because even if the cockpits were unsecure, it's unlikely that 150 passengers would sit still against 5 hijackers post-911. This time they would know they weren't going to Cuba.

9-11 was well thought out, but never intended to be repeated.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/26/2006 4:22 AM  

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