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A Phony War

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The Washington security community's latest hot topic. Warnings are sounding about the growing menace to the U.S. homeland from "homegrown terrorism." A recent Congressional Research Service purporting to quantify that increased risk has created a stir. All this angst needs to be placed in dispassionate perspective. America stills lives in an acutely anxious post-9/11 state. That trauma has cut so deeply into the national psyche as to leave open wounds as well as scars. They keep alive feelings of dread and cast a heavy shadow over our thinking about all matters that touch on terrorism.

Let's try a mind experiment. If 9/11 had not occurred, all other factors being the same -- including our wars in the Greater Middle East, would we be so worried over the threat of home grown terrorism? Highly unlikely. In those circumstances, it probably would not figure in the top ten perceived threats to American well-being. Most surely, we would not have created, lavishly funded and maintained a terrorism industry that has come to dominate thinking about security at home and abroad.

There does indeed exist a terrorism industry whose behavior largely conforms to that of other industries. It admittedly has a number of distinctive features. It is a public/private partnership; therefore it deals in two currencies -- political rewards and money. Its activities have deep and pervasive support among the populace at large and elites. It is impervious to criticism since its functions are deemed critical to the nation's basic security. Critics are either shrugged off or accused of not taking seriously grave threats. The terrorism industry's value to the country is impossible to measure since its success is defined in terms of negatives (things that haven't happened) rather than positives (things that did happen). While tangible value is immeasurable, there are millions of people whose livelihood, status, self-esteem and political future depend on perpetuation of the terrorism industry as it currently is structured and operates.

In addition, the terrorism industry is both seller and buyer of its products -- all of which are in the form of services. Its for-profit and non-profit components both depend on a high level of demand. Fear of terrorism generates the demand. Stoking fear generates higher returns for all those who work in the industry. The same people in the non-profit sector who benefit also make the judgments, launch the policies and control the discourse as to how great the need is.

A critique of assertions about the magnitude, nature and change in the level of threat we face must be understood against this backdrop. So, too, must any assessment of how well present policies and practices are working. With that admonition in mind, here is a personal appraisal of the issues raised by the questions posed to us.

1. The number of 'plots' uncovered by the FBI is not a fair benchmark for estimating anything of consequence. For these 'plots' have been so inchoate (the Queens/Denver 'axis'), involved such incompetent persons (e.g. the Times Square "some assembly required" dunderhead), or were so dependent on FBI instigation and assistance (the Newburgh street corner blabbers) as to have constituted no serious danger. Year to year variations inthe number of such incidents may well be idiosyncratic or due to fluctuations in the enterprise of the FBI.

2. The foreign connections have been highly varied in nature and significance. The 'underwear bomber' (the relatively most serious case) was in Yemen for a few weeks, where he got training that is more a testament to the ineptitude of the enemy than to the opening of a new 'front' in the war on terror. Somalis in Minneapolis who go home to join their clansmen in a multi-player civil war should not rightly be classified as would-be terrorists because their clan is somehow related to al-Shabaab, which may or may not have the potential to contribute to an al-Qaidi attack on American 'interests' somewhere in East Africa. By the terms of the loose definition used by American authorities, selling lemonade in Dearborn to raise money for some Palestinian charity that may share a rented office in Gaza also used by some outfit with ties to Hamas is an offense whose perpetrators can be prosecuted for aiding and abetting a terrorist organization. People have been so prosecuted.

3. The costs of our draconian war on terror at home are exceedingly high. We all know of the illegal (and certainly unconstitutional) activities of the Bush administration and now Obama administration -- the latter has given itself somewhat better legal cover for some of its dubious activities. Let us consider just a few items in the news these past few weeks. They are revelatory.

  • Book burning. The Pentagon has destroyed (almost) all extant copies of Colonel Anthony Shaffer's Operation Dark Heart book even though it already had been approved by DoD censors. Evidently, some people on the intelligence side found some of the material embarrassing. The publisher dutifully complied. (Note: I just bought a copy of this INDEX item on eBay; others available for49.95).
  • Harassment of opponents of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Chicago, the FBI ransacked two apartments of peace activists even though authorities admitted that there was no expectation of criminal activity or prosecution. In other words, intimidation and a fishing expedition.
  • The national secrets sham. The Obama Justice Department has aggressively used the claim of national security in potential jeopardy to abort legal proceedings even where the court has agreed to exclude classified evidence.
  • Targeted killings. Senior officials of the Obama administration have publicly stated that an American citizen can be 'liquidated' any place and anytime based on an arbitrary judgment by unidentified persons using unidentified criteria that such a person posed a threat (not necessarily imminent) to the lives of Americans somewhere in the world at some time in the future.
My personal judgment is that the war on terror, on balance, has had two dire effects: one, we are less safe as a consequence due to the great number of persons that our actions have recruited and motivated to support terrorist acts against the United States; and, two, we have seriously weakened our civil liberties.

Moreover, the number of persons and institutions with vested interests in keeping the terrorism industry thriving ensures that these costs will mount over time.