Does the US Government Understand the Terrorist Threat?

Most Americans just assume that the U.S. government’s actions to protect them from terrorism, if not perfect, are rational, based on sound information and analysis, and undertaken with the intention to protect the most people possible. But the government’s response here to the tragic bombings on the Russian subway should raise questions about such assumptions.

In response to the subway bombings in Russia, the metro subway system in Washington, D.C., increased its security – with transit police and bomb-sniffing canines conducting sweeps through subway stations and railroad yards. Yet the subway bombers in Russia are likely Chechens or other peoples in the North Caucuses seeking independence from Russia. Although the Chechen rebels have relied on funding from al-Qaeda and Doku Umarov, the Chechen insurgent leader, has several al-Qaeda emissaries on his staff, the Chechens are attacking Russia because the Russians continue a brutal suppression of Chechen aspirations for independence.

As with most local groups affiliated with al-Qaeda – for example, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (Iraq), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (North Africa) – the Chechens focus on local issues, rather than attacking U.S. territory. So the Chechens are unlikely to want to attack – and probably don’t have the ability to bomb – the Washington subway system. So why did Washington subway security ramp up after the Moscow bombings? It was either reflexive irrationality that a similar attack might occur here or the government demonstrating that it’s "doing something" to illogically nervous American commuters.

Probably both of these factors had something to do with it. Remember the hysteria after 9/11, when young National Guardsmen were deployed in some U.S. airports with assault rifles? One could only hope they weren’t given any ammunition and that it was all for show. Or how about the short-lived banning of electronic tickets and prohibition on getting out of your seat during the last 30 minutes of every flight into the nation’s capital?

Government action often seems to be reactive, whether rational or not, after a major incident, especially in the very publicly visible realm of air travel. After the shoe-bomber incident, the government required us to take off our shoes and have them X-rayed. After the terrorist plot to mix chemicals for a bomb once on the plane, liquids were limited to three-ounce containers. The Christmas underwear bomber will eventually give us all full-body scanners. Yet one can walk onto an Amtrak train with no security at all and a cruise ship with much less intensive scrutiny than air travel. An easily sinkable cruise ship going down could kill over a thousand people, and a train bombing could kill hundreds, as it did in Spain. In part, airline security gets more government effort because more people fly than take trains or cruise ships, thus resulting in more public awareness of security in that sector. Regardless of the threat, politics directs that lots of government attention be paid to air security.

More important, the government also guards things that are unlikely to be attacked, which should lead the average citizen to wonder if it even understands the threat from al-Qaeda central, which is trying to attack U.S. targets. For example, ironically and tragically in Washington, D.C., concrete barriers and a beefed-up police presence have "bunkerized" the Jefferson Memorial, which is supposed to be a tribute to the rhetorical champion of American liberty. Yet al-Qaeda usually attacks symbolic economic (the World Trade Center in New York) or political (the U.S. national military command at the Pentagon) targets. Despite the propaganda of George W. Bush, al-Qaeda does not attack the United States because of its freedom.

When Bush kept repeating this nonsense, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s heinous leader, put out an angry message denying it and reiterating that he attacks the United States because of its "infidel" occupation of Muslim lands and its support for corrupt Middle Eastern dictators.

Silence concerning or the deliberate muddling of al-Qaeda’s motives for attacking the U.S. by American politicians and media allows the American government to avoid being held accountable for its contributory negligence in causing horrific terrorist blowback, such as the 9/11 attacks. The excessive security at the Jefferson Memorial shows the lengths that the government will go to maintain the charade.

If terrorism is to be stopped, the underlying causes have to be eliminated. In the case of Russia, it has to somehow recognize Chechen self-determination. In the case of the United States, an honest debate has to finally occur about the blowback effects from an unnecessarily interventionist and militarized U.S. foreign policy abroad. A nation’s foreign and defense policies are supposed to make its people and territory safer, not less secure.

Author: Ivan Eland

Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.