Searching for al-Boogeyman

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media is all a-twitter with reports of “credible specific intelligence”
that al-Qaeda cells in America have plans for holiday season attacks.
We’ve seen similar reports before, with no sign of the predicted
violence. Now we’ve just gone to condition “Orange.” What does it
all mean?

reminded of an example we used in a university course on scientific
reasoning I taught. A psychic conveniently named “Mrs. Prophet”
warned of an imminent threat of nuclear war – which might be averted
by the prayers of her followers. It was the perfect scam, bringing
her credit whether or not nukes started flying. Either she predicted
the tragedy or her followers saved us from it!

should we believe an essentially identical kind of claim from Ashcroft
or Ridge?

analyze this, beginning with the standard assumption advanced by
the Bush Administration, much of the Democrat leadership, and many
media outlets: the Islamist terrorists we face are motivated by
a hatred for everything America stands for. They live only to accomplish
some destructive act that will diminish America’s power, comfort,
influence, or well-being.

let’s also add one other assumption, OK? That the terrorists aren’t
idiots. That is, that they will prefer easy, cheap, and safe modes
of attack to those that bring exorbitant costs in time, money, and
their very lives. Oh, sure – we can accept that these terrorists
hope eventually to die during some glorious victory over their enemies,
but certainly they’d prefer to have many previous glorious victories
prior to cashing in their chips, right?

point is that these terrorists aren’t hoping to take themselves
out along with their very first American victims. They’re hoping
to keep taking out American victims right up to the point where
their luck runs out.

anyone can see the probable allure of some really big attack on
the order of 9-11. If successful, it gives the impression that the
terrorists could strike whenever and wherever they want. Very impressive.
But the costs and risks of such an attack are huge – now that we’ve
seen it happen once. Should we really believe that Arab terrorists
are hell-bent on limiting their destructive acts just to spectacular
attacks that will not only get themselves killed if successful,
but risk probable failure by aiming at the best defended targets?
Especially when other options are virtually cost- and risk-free
(more on that in a moment)?

Let’s give them some credit for brains here.

if you accept these preliminary premises, there’s a conclusion that
follows almost automatically:


lines of argument lead to this conclusion. One has been nicely developed
by William Stone, III, in not one, but two articles
in The Libertarian Enterprise
online. Briefly, it goes like this: There’s no way to defend the
thousands upon thousands of soft targets – targets where truly
significant damage can be achieved with little risk of failure,
even less risk of getting caught, and at trivial expense. Stone
offers a number of specific examples, pointing out that any terrorist
worth his salt would have thought of those or equivalent prospects
on his own. More to the point, given the many cheap ways to build
explosive devices using household chemicals, ordinary hardware,
and electronic components (especially timers) off the shelf, we
should be seeing a non-stop series of attacks all over the country
by terrorists who are miles away by the time their planted explosives
go off.

about it.

  • We should
    see clusters of bombings designed to exceed the capacity of
    a city’s fire departments, leading to massive runaway fires.
    [In fact, except for the fact we haven’t seen more of it (and
    officials didn’t attribute it to terrorists), the recent wildfires
    in California illustrate perfectly what such attacks should
    look like, and so far remain the best candidate for actual
    terrorist activity since 9-11.]

  • We should
    be seeing attacks on weak spots in America’s infrastructure
    – at traffic bottlenecks due to Interstate highway construction
    (those big orange or blue traffic barrels don’t need to be filled
    with water or sand), at bridges, on railroad tracks, at remote
    electrical transmission towers, etc.

  • We should
    see horrible carnage in rural public schools, now guaranteed
    by law to be free of any defensive weaponry in the hands of
    teachers, staff, or (ohmigosh!) students. Remote churches, too,
    should be lost along with most of their congregations.

you can see, opportunities for destruction are limited only by imagination.
So where have they been?

other line of argument attributes just a bit more strategic insight
to the terrorists. I figure if it occurs to me, it could easily
have occurred to them:

primed America with the carnage of 9-11, the most savvy terrorists
of all would carry out no additional attacks whatsoever. Instead,
they would send one another communications, intending that these
be intercepted, talking about big plans for big devastation. Then
they’d sit back and watch as we changed our own behavior in ways
that seriously damage sectors of the American economy, and as our
government wastes billions of dollars chasing after imaginary threats
while reducing a once free America to a full-fledged police state.

in a while, these ultra-savvy terrorists would include in their
“chatter” a few comments about having to cancel or delay plans because
of interference by Homeland Security efforts, providing an explanation
of why no attacks actually occur, and giving the government their
justification to continue their repression of liberty unabated.

they’d pump up the rhetorical volume for this holiday season –
partly because it’s just expected, but also so we will depress retail
sales at a most crucial time for American businesses – again letting
us do all the damage by our own hand.

this comes at virtually no cost or risk to the terrorists. It’s
the perfect revenge for whatever insults may have motivated their
enmity: arranging for us to both dream up and implement our own
punishment, indefinitely! So,
if I’m right, there’s good news and bad news.

good news is that we’re not dealing with the kind of smart, motivated
terrorists that could easily run rampant in America as I’ve just

good news is that it certainly looks like we’re dealing with the
ultra-savvy terrorists instead, and all we need to do to stop the
pain is to stay our own hand!

bad news is that a motivated ultra-savvy terrorist, once deprived
of our cooperation in punishing ourselves, may well turn to the
relatively simple, safe, and inexpensive kinds of destruction that
we will never be able to prevent altogether (if at all).

why a peaceful world depends on a lack of motivated terrorists –
which really means eliminating rational motivations for terrorism.
I’m not referring to any kind of unprovoked hatred that prefers
doing harm to others to being peaceful and productive; that’s simply
a form of pathology, and should be quite rare. The rational
motivations for terrorism involve either greed or a grievance.

motivates terrorism in the form of extortion. This form can be fairly
well eliminated by (1) a strict policy of denying extortionists
any payoff, and (2) relentless pursuit of extortionists, followed
by strict, harsh penalties for their crimes. But this isn’t the
form of terrorism we face now in America.

we talk of terrorism in America, we’re dealing almost exclusively
with cases inspired by some grievance. Timothy McVeigh had a grievance
against federal government run amok. Osama bin Laden and his crew
have a grievance against our federal government, too. They hate
the way it has interfered in Middle Eastern affairs, and the specific
harms they believe it has visited upon Arabs. Without resentment
over these grievances there simply would never have been any Islamist
terrorism on American soil.

if we could prevent our government from creating such grievances
practically everywhere it turns, we could end terrorism in America.

25, 2003

Van Cleave is a philosopher finishing his doctorate at Indiana University,
Bloomington. He also commits libertarian activism at

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