Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The al Qaeda threat

The new U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has declared that strategic destruction of al Qaeda is “within reach.” Does Panetta mean to infer an end to terrorist threats is achievable? Does this mean that the government will stand down the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and return airport and transport security to pre-9/11 levels?

Even as the United States largely created Osama bin Laden by demonizing him, the U.S. also greatly magnified the threat al Qaeda posed at its apogee. All terrorist groups eventually go away: some wither from lack of support; some die in defeat; others fade away after the death of charismatic leadership; a few even achieve sufficient success that the group moves from the shadows to the mainstream. In the case of al Qaeda, several factors were significant: the death of its charismatic leader, repeated defeats, increased opposition to its tactics from the larger Muslim community.

However, al Qaeda’s 9/11 victory, mostly a result of over-reaction by the United States, will continue to exact a costly toll in the U.S. and elsewhere. I predict that the TSA will not go away – at least for decades. The TSA has become an expensive make-work program that panders to fear. Research repeatedly shows that the screening of luggage and passengers is ineffective.

The U.S. should have held up the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 not only as heroes but as the ideal paradigm for responding to a mid-flight terrorist attacks. Courageous and decisive intervention, as occurred on Flight 93, would have quickly ended additional terrorist efforts to use passenger flights in attacks. The TSA provides an expensive pretense of security; true security is possible only when people accept both the inherent vulnerability of life and responsibility for actively shaping communal life, e.g., intervening in an attempted hijacking.

This post is not an argument for allowing airline passengers – or people in general – to carry weapons. The passengers on Flight 93 did not need guns to stop the hijackers. Guns on planes will make passengers less rather than more safe, just like guns in a home make the residents less rather than more safe (cf. my posts, Ethical Musings: Gun control, National Parks, and the Second Amendment and Ethical Musings: Handguns in church),

Of course, the real answer to terrorism lies in establishing justice for all, eliminating the motive for terrorism that allows terrorist groups to gain traction with a constituency. Once the world lives in a fuller approximation of justice (an approximation of an ideal unlikely to be attained in my lifetime), violence will be the exclusive province of the pathological, a problem appropriately and relatively easily dealt with by the medical community with an assist from the police.

The end of al Qaeda will be a good event for which I will give thanks. However, that event, whenever it comes, will not signal the end, nor perhaps even a diminution, of the threat posed by radical Islamist terrorists.


Ted said...

Government officials NEED terrorist groups and foreign unruly situations to support their electoral potential and support for more money. Make us fear anything and you have our vote especially if you have a solution that sounds right, even if common sense shows it will not be effective.
Any day, at any time, a terrorist attack could occur and there is little that can be done especially if the attacker is in a small group or just an individual. When you don’t care about dying, you have an almost unstoppable force.
The pundits are now saying when we leave both wars things will revert to the way it was. A tribal force in Afghanistan and a bloody dictator in Iraq will control each country. So what have we gained from all this horror? One commander said the local people supported our efforts as long as we gave them money. When the money was gone they wanted us to leave.
The only way to support our troops is to bring them home

George Clifford said...

Respected sociologist Robert Wuthnow in his book, Be Very Afraid, makes the point that politicians use fear to influence the electorate.