Alert to Implications

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the terrorist alert first issued on Sunday was the relatively extensive debate it engendered in much of the country, even though the alert was in some ways calculated to be responsive to criticisms of previous alerts. Instead of being a vague and generalized alert about a possible attack somewhere in the vast United States, it was focused on five specific buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. And the authorities told us a little bit about material found on a computer in a raid in Pakistan, and about a 25-year-old Pakistani computer expert named Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan (which might or might not be an alias), who was questioned, and whose interrogation, in addition to the materials on the computer files, might have had something to do with an official sense of urgency.

Of course it came out on Monday that most of the material regarding security systems and procedures at the five buildings was assembled prior to the 9/11/2001 attacks. Surely some security procedures have been changed since then. So government spokesmen were forced to respond to questions about the relevancy and immediacy of the material. “We know this is a terrorist organization that does its homework,” Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge said. “Al Qaeda often plans well, well in advance. We also know that they like to update their information before a potential attack.” In January for an August or September attack? Doesn’t suggest a high level of professionalism.

At the same speech Tuesday, Ridge also insisted that “We don’t do politics in the Department of Homeland Security,” which is palpably ridiculous. Whether the warnings were intended to deflect attention from the “bounce” in the polls that John Kerry ended up not getting from the Democratic convention I have no real idea. But the warnings are quintessentially political in the sense that the authorities are deathly afraid that a terrorist attack will happen without them having warned us about it and created the illusion that the government’s frenetic activities have some real connection to protecting the American people. So their incentive is to cry “wolf” even if they have only a shred of a hint of a possible attack to make themselves look good if an attack actually occurs. If that isn’t a political motivation I don’t know what is.

All right, all right, I’ll give them one possible benefit of the doubt. It is just possible that one of the intended effects (besides urging Americans in general to be a little more vigilant and more accustomed to having armed government goons on the streets and in subways and tunnels) is to alert terrorists that authorities are onto them so they will abandon these specific plans. It is virtually impossible to know if that has happened in connection with this or other alerts, but it is at least theoretically possible.

Other Motivations

Having made that concession, it is well to remember, as the invaluable Lew Rockwell of the Mises Institute in Auburn pointed out in a column this week the government has other reasons to keep us in a constant state of uncertainty and uneasiness. “These characters [in government] are extremely risk averse and fear being blamed for not having prevented the next attack. They want a police state and use these alerts to get us used to having heavily armed government men take over our lives, just as in any totalitarian country.”

Rockwell goes on: “To understand why the proliferation of terror and terror warnings, as well as terror by terror warnings, is something the US government likes and promotes, you have to think like a government. These are people who resent our sense of normalcy and our bourgeois assumption that they are not really that important. They like telling people what to do. They want to lord it over a population of sheep. After the disappearance of communism, something had to take its place to become the great fear factor in American life.”

Not everybody is as cynical as Lew Rockwell, but plenty of Americans besides Howard Dean are more than a little weary of vague warnings. As Michael Wilson wrote in the New York Times, “Just two days after the new terror alerts, questions – and even resentment – arose from inside the cross hairs, and police officials coordinating stepped-up security measures were looking ahead to when it would be possible to step back down.”

Police chiefs in New Jersey “bemoaned the costs” of the new security measures they were expected to install. Municipal police in Washington, D.C. complained that the feds had walled off the U.S. Capitol – even though there had been no public discussion of a renewed threat to the capitol – without even the courtesy of notifying them. As Tony Bullock, director of communications for Mayor Anthony Williams, called it “walling off the Capitol – turning it into a gated community for a governmental elite” had created enormous traffic problems amounting to gridlock

More Vague Information

All this criticism might or might not have been a factor in government spokesmen saying later in the week that it wasn’t just the three-year-old information on computers in Pakistan but new information that had come into the White House just last Friday – stuff that naturally couldn’t be revealed in detail for fear of compromising ongoing surveillance and counter-terrorist activities, of course – that made it seem prudent to issue the imminent threat notice on Sunday. And there were 12 terrorist suspects arrested in London, one of whom is said to be of intense interest to U.S. intelligence officials.

Thus (per the New York Times) “The White House portrayed itself as moving aggressively to deal with the terrorist threat and was reluctant to spell out details of the intelligence it was acting on after several days in which it had been criticized for not making clear from the beginning that the newly discovered surveillance reports on buildings in the United States dated from three years ago or more.”

In all of this it might be significant to remember a fact pointed out in Stefan Halper and Jonathan Clarke’s new book, America Alone. Government officials decide when a development constitutes a security threat. They decide when such a threat is over and when our citizens are more secure. As professor of international politics at the University of Newcastle, David Campbell has asserted that danger has no necessary relation to the action from which it is said to derive; nothing is more dangerous than anything else except when interpreted as such. How Saddam Hussein was presented as a threat of transcendental levels, above all other possible security threats to America, is an example of such interpretation.”

Halper and Clarke note, for example, that all during the propaganda build-up to the Iraq invasion, “The administration’s discourse largely ignored Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The threat from North Korea was made light of, even when Kim Jong-Il publicly and with evident pride announced that his country was enriching uranium for weapons purposes. [The pattern of downplaying North Korea’s new weapons continues, just this week, perhaps because officials know full well that with 140,000 U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq there’s no way to mount even a credible military threat to North Korea, even if the weapons development seemed to warrant one or a military response were appropriate.] The same pattern can be observed regarding Pakistan. Agencies within the latter’s government supported both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power had raised considerable concerns in the West about the stability of an embryonic nuclear power struggling to contain numerous and popular anti-Western forces within its society, including its intelligence service, which was decidedly sympathetic to the Taliban.”

The lesson is not necessarily that Iran, North Korea or Pakistan pose immediate threats, but that they could easily be interpreted to be at least as big a threat as Saddam Hussein supposedly was. So it is possible the government is focusing us on the terrorist threats it wants us to be concerned about rather than threats that are actually most imminent.

Other Implications

All this skepticism having been registered, the alert, if it happens to have been based on genuine information and perhaps turns out to have averted a possible planned attack, demonstrates two other facts.

First is that day-to-day, apparently boring and often unrewarding police and intelligence work – done of necessity in conjunction with governments in other countries – will be essential to neutralizing terrorists. Military action may sometimes be needed (and is generally seen by neo-conservatives as the first option), but relentless grunt work is a key to ultimate success. That includes cultivating intelligence services in other countries rather than working to alienate them with unilateralism.

It will take years – if ever – to develop agents within jihadist terrorist groups who could be instrumental in eventually dismantling them. Meantime it behooves the United States to work with other countries.

Unappreciated Resilience

A second point it that jihadist terrorists still seem focused on what Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called “iconic economic targets.” This suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the American economy and market economies in general, a misunderstanding shared by many Americans.

We may never know if Osama bin Laden expected the entire American economy to collapse or to be irreparably damaged by the attacks on the World Trade Center. But there is little doubt that he and others (including many in the United States) have an essentially hierarchical understanding of the U.S. economy, a vague belief that it depends on orders from a few oligarchs at the top to function.

Fortunately, a market economy – which the United States does not have in a pure form given the extent of government intervention – is more a bottom-up than a top-down affair. Economic coordination results from millions of decisions and transactions undertaken voluntarily rather than from orders from the top.

As the 9/11 attacks, which damaged but hardly destroyed the economy, demonstrated, such a decentralized structure is more resilient than a top-down hierarchy. This implies that one defense against terrorism is further decentralizing authority structures rather than gathering more power at the center.

One can hope the attacks the alert anticipates never occur. It may be small comfort – nobody should be anything other than dismayed and angry if some building are destroyed and people killed – but it should be some comfort to know that even if they do, they will damage America but not destroy it. A relatively free society is more resilient than its putative leaders usually give it credit for being.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).