07 November 2005

The "War" On Terrorism?

The notion of a war on terrorism implies that the right solution is military force and methods. Does this make sense?

The 9-11 attack, one of the largest, most organized and deadly terrorist operations in history involved a few dozen people, tops. The 3-11 attack in Madrid, and the subway bombings in London probably involved closer to a dozen people, and many terrorist incidents appear to be of that scale or smaller, in terms of numbers of people involved. Outside the context of full fledged civil wars, like those in Iraq, Sri Lanka and Columbia, terrorists tend not be have particularly heavy military equipment. The people who commit terrorist acts are, by and large, not Armies. The problem is not that terrorists can outgun civil authorities, the problem is figuring out who the terrorists are before they strike.

The goal in stopping terrorism is first, to discourage people from wanting to commit terrorist acts, and second, to prevent planned terrorist acts. Punishing people who commit terrorist acts is typically a tertiary or lower priority. Many deadly terrorist acts are suicide bombings or desperate efforts to kill with a gun or other means without much regard to whether or not the terrorist lives. At trial, many terrorists basically proudly proclaim their guilt. And, many people who carry out terrorist acts know little, if anything, about a terrorist organization’s larger plans. Thus, the job is not primarily to discover the individual who committed the crime and bring him to justice.

This makes a response to terrorism quite different from ordinary police work. Suicidal criminals are exceedingly rare, and the usual murder-suicide is an isolated event, rather than part of a larger plan, often wrapped up in a failed personal relationship. With some isolated exceptions, most notably organized vice and human smuggling gangs, civilian law enforcement is also not outgunned by ordinary criminals.

One key issue that American authorities seem oblivious to is that the two main goals of stopping terrorism can easily end up at cross purposes. The kinds of tactics, like torture, secret prisons, collaborating with authoritarian dictorships, and indiscriminate searches and arrests, that anti-terrorism units may be tempted to use to prevent planned terrorist acts, may be the very kinds of tactics that make people want to commit terrorist acts.

If every young Arab man is routinely subjected to humiliating searches and questioning, he might some day get angry enough to consider committing a terrorist act, or equally insidiously, he might decide to look the other way, rather than informing the authorities who have harassed him, when he sees suspicious acts which might be preparations for a terrorist act. On the other hand, if he sees that he's treated with respect by a country, he may feel that he has a stake in the system and may be more apt to provide the kind of tips upon which anti-terrorism efforts rise or fall, should he happen to come across one, and he will likely be more likely to encounter a useful tip about an Islamist group than a former Mormon missionary who was trained for a mission in an Arabic speaking country, the prototypical top secret cleared linguist in the United States government today.

Of course, on the other hand, if terrorist feel that they can successfully carry out a strike without suffering any meaningful consequences, they may be emboldened to consider carrying out terrorist strikes.

There isn’t an easy answer, but it is pretty clear that most of the ordinary military is pretty useless as an anti-terrorism tool.

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