In recent years, I have seen terrorism denounced as a despicable crime. I wonder whether it shouldn’t be accepted frankly as a form of war. I am not sure why blowing up ten people in a restaurant in, say, London is more despicable than blowing up ten children in Afghanistan by a drone. (They are both despicable.) Some terrorists, such as the Unabomber, are merely free-lance criminal psychopaths. Others, such as bin Laden, engage in terrorism for the same reason why militaries attack countries: to make the other side do what the attacker wants.
From the point of view of cost and benefit, terrorism is a brilliantly effective form of warfare, especially against heavily armed countries of the First World. The reasons are several. First, terrorism offers no target to the basically World War Two militaries of advanced countries. If five Saudis, two Pakis, a Russian and a disaffected American blow up a building in Chicago, against whom does the US seek revenge? Is it against Russia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States, none of whose governments had anything to do with the attack?
Second, the return on investment is phenomenal. For example, the attack on New York cost perhaps several hundred thousand dollars. Yet it drew the US into multiple drawn-out, losing wars costing hundreds of billions of dollars, and transformed America from a reasonably free country into a rapidly deepening Orwellian gloom. A tiny input, a stunningly large effect. If terrorism were a hedge fund, it would be the hottest buy on the planet.
It is truly slick. The terrorists don’t do serious damage to the attacked country. (The casualties in New York, unusually large for a terror attack, if folded into the year’s traffic casualties would hardly have been noticed.) They stimulate the victim society to damage itself. TSA, Homeland Security, militarized police, warrantless searches in train stations, ever-tightening electronic surveillance of citizens, neutering of the Constitution and the abrogation of civil rights: bin Laden didn’t do these things. He couldn’t possibly have done them. He stimulated us to do them to ourselves. Genius.
The remarkable return on investment characterizes terrorism. Some yoyo tries to put a bomb in his shoe, and for the rest of time Americans hop around barefoot in airports. On a guess, the shoe bomb cost fifty bucks. For the price of a meal for two in a reasonably decent restaurant, you change the behavior forever of a nation of over three hundred million. Such a deal. It is what the Pentagon calls a “force multiplier.”
Another way of putting this is that terrorists, in the United States at any rate, serve chiefly as enablers. Many entities in the country clearly want expanded, very greatly expanded, police powers: Congress, the FBI, NSA, DEA, BATF, CIA, the military, Homeland Security, TSA in particular, and the police in general. They want more power and fewer restrictions for differing reasons, some less malign than others, but none have any innate attachment to civil liberties. Terrorism gives them an ideal pretext for Sovietization, and there are no longer many safeguards. Tell the public it is in danger, that you will protect it if they just give up freedoms, and bingo.
It works, beautifully, again and again. A free-lance moron tries to bring an explosive liquid aboard an airliner, and forever the government confiscates shampoo and tooth paste.
Most recently, a couple of Moslems killed three people at the Boston Marathon. If they had died in a traffic accident, it would have gotten a paragraph in nine-point type on page thirty-seven. But terrorists did it. Consequently we have calls for, giggle, more surveillance and the outlawing of backpacks at public events. Never have so many been so controlled by so few. It’s brilliant.
And there’s no way to stop it, at least not short of instituting a police state that would make Joe Stalin look like a radical civil-libertarian. Our (extremely expensive) intelligence agencies detected neither the first attack on the Twin Towers in 1993, nor Nine-Eleven, nor the Times Square truck-bomb that didn’t explode, nor the Boston pressure-cooker bombers. TSA let both the shoe-bomber and the underpants bomber aboard, where passengers and crew had to wrestle them down. It’s like McDonald’s making customers clean up their own trash.
Thing is, a country like the United States consists of hundreds of thousands of soft targets. Almost any crowd, subway, train, ball game, NASCAR event, public school, tank farm, or food store represents a lucrative target for terrorists. Every time one of these is attacked, more cameras, more monitoring of internet traffic, will be imposed. Safety won’t improve, but the federal government will become more intrusive.
Guns aren’t necessary. A car at high speed, five gallons of gasoline, a few pounds of fertilizer, a box of matches, various poisons, or a machete is quite sufficient to do considerable damage and send the media into a frenzy.
For that matter, a few ounces of simple jello will do the trick. Several years back, some wag in Washington left a Petri dish, maybe it was, of red gelatin outside of B’Nai Brith, I think it was, labeled “Antrax,” whereupon the nation’s capital went into lockdown and a hilarious media circus ensued. Never mind that anthrax except in the form of spores isn’t very dangerous.
If the terrorist is willing to die, which now seems frequently to be the case, there is no defense, certainly not if the terrorist acts alone. Think what you could do with a car at a hundred miles an hour and careful choice of target. Any three bright sophomores in a dorm room at Princeton could come up with dozens, literally dozens, of ways of engaging in terrorism that would not be preventable.
To be an effective terrorist, you don’t have to kill many people, or any people. The shoe bomber didn’t. You just have to be a terrorist and get on television. You just have to make the public feel threatened. The threat doesn’t have to amount to anything. The likelihood of being killed in Boston after the bombing by going about your business was virtually zero, but the public frightens easily.
The drones the Pentagon uses for terroristic purposes in Afghanistan are sophisticated, leading many to think that they are beyond the reach of free-lance terrs. They are not. Many years back as a military writer I discovered Aerosonde, a perfectly legitimate company that made, and makes, small GPS-guided aircraft for scientific purposes. Hmm, I thought, poor man’s cruise missile. As advertising, Aerosonde sent one from Europe to North America where, even then, it arrived within fifteen (I think) feet of its destination. The technology is now cheap and widely available. A renegade engineer and voila.
I wonder what Clausewitz would have said.