Searching for al-Boogeyman

The 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?

I’m 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!

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

Let’s 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.

But 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?

My 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.

Sure, 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)?

Nah. Let’s give them some credit for brains here.

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


Two 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.

Think 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.

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

The 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:

Having 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.

Once 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.

Naturally 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.

All 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.

The 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 described.

More 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!

The 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).

That’s 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.

Greed 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.

When 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.

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

December 25, 2003

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