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.