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What Now?

Try this simple thought experiment. First, build a house. Make it a nice two-story brick house with a two-car garage and a basement. Can't do it? Well, get help (and money) and watch it being built. It takes dozens of men months to build. A concrete crew, carpenters, roofers, electricians, plumbers, finish carpenters, brick masons, and more are needed. Now that your $200,000 house (adjust regionally as needed) is built, go buy a gas can, 6 gallons of gas, and a cheap lighter. Pour the gas liberally onto the exposed studs in the basement, and throughout the first floor. Light it with your lighter, move a safe distance away, and watch months of labor by dozens of men destroyed in a few minutes, with $20 worth of equipment and no plan beyond a few sentences.

Now try this thought experiment. How could terrorists create riots and mass panic across America now that the airline industry is "safe"? Easy. Steal a few eighteen-wheelers, pack on the ammonium nitrate and fuel, and blast away at the beltway cloverleaves in Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and pretty much any major city during rush hour. Then leak a press release to AFP from "Mujahadeen Liberation Front" claiming to have seeded the air with Anthrax from small private planes on all those stranded motorists. Don't even bother with the Anthrax, just put out the press release. Sound far fetched? Maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn't. This is just a thought experiment to illustrate a simple point: an Internet hack can come up with a plan to terrorize an entire country, shut down the economy, create mass rioting and "price gouging" with a few stolen rigs, some garden variety explosives, and some committed individuals willing to carry it out. Before you get all worked up and send nasty email thanking me for giving the terrorists new ideas, read a little Tom Clancy and realize that I'm not all that creative.

Why does the world work this way? In a word: Entropy. Physicists use the term to describe the way things progress from order to disorder under normal circumstances. This is why your room never cleaned itself when you were a kid. This is why that broken VCR gathering cobwebs in the garage doesn't just up and fix itself. This is why in our previous thought experiment, we easily destroy a house it took months of hard work to build. This is why a group of two-dozen committed terrorists who thought out, planned, trained, and observed could wreak mass destruction without a huge support network, fancy equipment, foreign government support, or a lot of money. As an aside, this is why a missile defense will never work.

After World War I, the French built the Maginot Line. An impregnable set of defense fortresses ready to fend off a World War I style German invasion. Hitler and his generals blitzed around it via the Low Countries, and the Panzers rolled into Paris June 14, 1940, just over a month after the blitz started. The blitz was something different, something unexpected. The USS Cole was fueling up in a Yemeni port. Launch a multi-million dollar ship-killer missile at an American warship like the USS Cole, and it has defense systems to knock it out and retaliate against the launcher. Two guys in a rubber dinghy packed with explosives motored up, saluted, and nearly sent it to the bottom. That was something different. September 11, 2001. The terrorists used knives and box cutters to take over the planes; they probably could have used flint arrowheads. They knew the response to a hijacking: give in to the demands, land where they tell you, and let the professionals negotiate; you'll live. This time it was different.

Security is reactive by nature; it can only counter threats it has seen before. There is no conceivable way to defend against every kind of attack imaginable, so we try to deter the kinds that might happen based on past experiences. Only problem is, the government is now busy deterring an old attack. The terrorists knew that their jetliner as bomb attack was most likely a one-time assault. They won't use it again. From the World Trade Center to those tricky Greeks with their wooden-horse gifts, new tactics work because we haven't seen them before. Put extra safety precautions on every jetliner, triple scan every package, strip search every passenger, and the terrorists will throw a bomb with a GPS tracker into an empty boxcar, and let it blow as it rolls by an oil refinery outside Philadelphia or Houston. We won't protect against it until after it happens.

Increased security will not prevent future terrorist attacks.

Here at home, organized crime thrives. Criminal gangs import tons of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana from abroad. They run Meth labs, and make Ecstasy in basements. A literal army of domestic police is losing the drug war one kilogram at a time. The United States government can't stop drug use with a small army that all speaks English, not even in its own prisons. These are the same people who are going to setup intelligence gathering abroad aimed at finding out who doesn't like us, what they plan to do, how, and why. I'm sorry, but I don't have much faith in their ability to succeed.

It takes massive amounts of time and training to obtain the fluency needed to order a hotel room in Arabic without getting charged four times the going rate, much less setup credible cover stories for deep agents, or recruit informers in every potential terrorist country. How many informers would end up duping us for years on end, taking our money and leaving us with nothing? We would end up funding our own enemies, or serving as hit men for inter-Arab conflicts. "Ya, I heard that other gang from Iran is planning an attack. You should take them out." How many countries that we're on friendly terms with would allow our intelligence agencies access to spy on their own citizens, much less Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan?

Increased intelligence spending will not prevent future terrorist attacks.

You're probably thinking, so Mr. Smarty Pants, if we can't beat these guys with added intelligence or increased domestic security, what's the answer?

Yes, we should bring the terrorists to justice. Publish the evidence, and screw the classification game. What good are top secrets in a world where an hour at an Internet terminal in a public library and google.com can teach you how to make Mustard Gas or an A-Bomb. Robert Fisk makes the convincing argument that the leaders of the Islamic world are shocked and embarrassed by what happened. Use that, and the court of public opinion to secure the handover of bin Laden and his agents by the Islamic world. Where Tomahawks and English-only CIA spooks fail, Muslims disgusted by murder can succeed. No, it's not a fireworks show, but it will work. And it will avoid creating a new generation of terrorists.

Then, get out of the Middle East. Have any more Marines been killed in Lebanon since Reagan pulled out? No. Are we still be fighting Vietnam? No. Does anyone think less of Ronald Reagan for pulling troops out of Lebanon? No. The right decision is always lauded as wise in hindsight, not cowardly, or giving in to terrorism. Pulling our troops out of Saudi Arabia would have prevented the deaths of 6,000 Americans had it been done at the end of the Gulf War, 10 years ago. We haven't started shooting yet. It's time to realize that extra money for the government, extra "security", increased "intelligence" and bombing Afghanistan or Iraq, will just create more of the problem.

September 25, 2001