The government cannot win its war against terrorism, at least as it is currently being pursued. The terrorists will always outsmart the central planners in DC, now and until the end of time. First the terrorists used a commercial airliner as a bomb, now they send anthrax-laced letters, and what’s next nobody can know or anticipate, but the fears are running wild. Insurers are so terrified that they are bailing out of the World Cup and the Winter Olympics.
At every step, the response by government has been predictably bad. Ex post, it punishes the innocent, because they are easiest to get to, with mandatory and costly inconveniences, none of which would have stopped previous terror attacks, to say nothing of preventing future attacks. Meanwhile, under the cover of emergency, the government attacks rights previously considered sacred.
But nothing the US government is capable of doing — whether it’s shutting down the mails, grounding all planes, reading all our email, or wiping whole countries off the map — will make the difference. The US military will not defeat terrorism this way, and the Office of Homeland Security will not protect us from the Pentagon’s failure.
As soon as the entire US population suits up in anthrax-proof suits and gas masks (now advertised in the New York Times), a new method will be found. Use your imagination. There’s no limit to the chaos that sheer malice can cause.
The more the government does in response, the more our sense of insecurity will grow. This follows the general principle that government can’t do anything right, not even those things that many believe it is supposed to do, like provide security. Not even maximum security prisons can ultimately prevent riots if the prisoners have decided that they have nothing to lose.
Consider the obvious: In the strategy laid out by George Bush, he theorized that punishing terror with war would reduce it. For two weeks the government has punished terror by dropping weapons of mass destruction on Afghanistan. Are the terrorists deterred? If anything, the opposite is true. They are emboldened, radicalized, more intensely committed than ever. As they become ever more creative, they are going to revel in how they can outsmart the government.
We should not really be surprised at this result. Every modern war was supposed to have been the war that ended war. Recall that when George Bush’s father drove Iraq out of Kuwait, it was supposed to send a message that aggression will never be tolerated.
To make sure that Iraq got the message, right at the end of the war, the feds bombed all the water-purification and sewage-treatment plants, to spread disease, imposed a ten-year embargo (on medicine, food, and parts to repair broken water-purification and sewage-treatment machinery, among other things), and stationed troops in Saudi Arabia. These actions, which led to incredible death and suffering, gave birth to a hatred that knows no bounds.
The Iraq war didn’t eliminate aggression but instead spawned more. In the same way, the wars against poverty, smoking, illiteracy, and crime all increased the very thing targeted. It is one of the great paradoxes of government that we never seem to anticipate, a fact which makes it no less true.
The government cannot do what it sets out to do because it is a monolithic bureaucracy that bobbles everything it tries. In the war against terror, it is battling private, quicksilver activists driven by hatred and uncircumscribed by a library of regulations and mandates.
No matter how many resources government has at its disposal, it lacks the key tools to accomplish the job: flexibility, insight, and the incentive and ability to anticipate the future. The US will forever be "Striking Back," but never anticipating and thereby preventing the next unpredictable attack.
Because the proven perpetrators in September 11 are all dead, the objective of the US government is to kill Osama bin Laden and punish governments that support him. But does anyone really believe that this is going to take care of the problem? Bin Laden doesn’t control people like puppets. Those acting on his behalf have free will. Even if they didn’t, there will be other bin Ladens, and they will multiply exponentially.
I am not counseling despair, just realism. The immediate response comes: "well, we have to do something!" Yes, we do. That something is to recognize that coercion and bombings are not going to work, and instead try freedom and peace, starting with free trade with Iraq.
The embargo has reduced a country that once had high living standards and a thriving middle class to a state of total barbarism. It has done nothing but entrench Saddam’s despotic rule, in the same way that the terrorism has strengthened the hand of government here at home.
This war has so far followed the general pattern from the whole of human history: what begins in the interruption of trade ends in invasion and destruction. Along with permitting trade, we should address a major sore spot and pull the troops out of Saudi Arabia.
What’s to lose? The option is to have the US government continue to tighten its iron grip over the American people in the name of protecting us while it makes life ever more dangerous for all of us. With or without terrorism, changing policy is the right thing to do.
There is no way to preserve freedom at home while the government wages war abroad. Those who cheer on the war while regretting the imposition of despotism at home are engaged in an impossible intellectual balancing act. The proof is all around us. The war won’t reduce terrorism, and pretending otherwise makes us less free and less secure.