THE BLOG

Liberty For Not-All: Rethinking "The Global War on Terror"

10/22/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James Pinkerton Contrib. editor, American Conservative; Fellow, New America Foundation

The massive suicide bomb that went off in front of a Marriott hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, killing more than 50, including the Czech ambassador, reminds us that terrorism continues as a serious trans-national threat. From Oklahoma City to Madrid to Bali, it's ominously easy to set off a bomb.

And yet a wrong-headed idea has infiltrated into our thinking: the idea that the cure for terrorism is freedom. President Bush, for example, said in May to the Israeli Knesset, "This fundamental insight, that freedom yields peace, is the great lesson of the 20th century." Well, with all due respect, that's simply not true. Freedom yields peace only for those who wish to be peaceable. For those who don't wish to be peaceable, freedom is a license to kill. So to deal with them, other steps must be taken--stern steps.

We can begin by remembering that terrorism is not an ideology, it is a tactic--a way for people to kill other people. So the cure for terroristic deeds is not freedom, it is control.

North Korea, a controlled state, does not have a terrorism problem. Pakistan, a half-controlled/half-anarchic democracy, does have a terrorism problem. And the U.S. is closer to Pakistan than it is to North Korea.

Now in the long run, it can be argued that freedom leads to bourgeois satisfaction and then to non-violence--but that's an issue for the long run.

In the short run, Pakistan has a big problem, and it will be solved, if it is solved, through tough internal security measures. And by the way, that's also true of Afghanistan. The neo-Taliban killers in that country don't need more freedom; peace-minded Afghans need to be rid of the Taliban, by any means necessary.

Here in America, the problem is not that severe. We have crime, but not much terrorism. Not many American have AK-47s and an opium trade to protect, and mercifully, few, if any, are willing to die for a political cause. So when Rudy Giuliani cleaned up Times Square in the 90s, he suffered from lawsuits, not suicide bombers. But nonetheless, Giuliani's method could be considered illiberal: He did not seek to empower pimps and crack dealers, he disempowered them.

These days, our beloved Transportation Security Administration has taken Giuliani-ism to an extreme. TSA doesn't seek to listen to airline travelers, it seeks to humiliate them. Old or young, male or female, dangerous or not, you must take your shoes off, empty out your pockets, and go through the metal detectors repeatedly. But give TSA its due: Blunt instruments that they are, these techniques have succeeded. Scrutiny, backed up by force, works.

But in the meantime, the latest bombing in Pakistan, piled on other recent incidents, from Turkey to India, should remind us that making and detonating a lethal bomb is not a difficult technical challenge. If Timothy McVeigh could do it in 1995, lots of people can do it in 2008--and they do. Warfare has been particle-ized, down to the individual level, and so defenses must be just as granulated.

We need all the tools we can get to fight terror, including judicious Israeli-style profiling. And we need a comprehensive international approach to counter-terrorism, beyond Interpol. Even before 9-11, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ) had broached the idea of a multilateral counter-terror organization.

But creating a NATO-like international alliance against terror, valuable as that would be, will not save us from an even more painful truth: If we wish to be safe, or safer, we have to make fundamental readjustments in the security of our public places and facilities. Targets that are now judged to be "soft" must be made "hard."

In the wake of the Pakistan Marriott bombing, for example, every hotelier in the world--except maybe in North Korea--is dutybound to reexamine security procedures.

Does that mean frisking guests, searching their cars, and building blast walls? In some places, it already does. But other counter-terror tools can be improved, such as detectors for explosives and radiation. And those sensing tools can and should be applied to cities, roadways, and, most of all, borders.

These changes are difficult to achieve. They are costly--and disturbing.

But the alternative is worse, because some people can never be entrusted with "freedom." And so the rest of us will have to watch them--and do what we must to thwart them.