Monday, October 11, 2004

Should We Hope Terrorism Will Someday Be Nothing But A Nuisance?

In Sunday's New York Times magazine ("Kerry's Undeclared War," October 10, 2004), Matt Bai asks John Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again. Kerry gives a startling reply:
"We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," Kerry said. "As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."
Like Mr. Bai, I find Kerry's reply remarkable, but not because it is optimistic, as Mr. Bai believes. Instead, I find Kerry's reply to be deeply disturbing and even frightening.

Let's start by reflecting on his choice of the word "nuisance." When my dog gets fleas, that's a nuisance. My having a flat tire on the way to work is a nuisance. Terror such as we witnessed on 9/11 is not a nuisance; it is a horror. What then could Kerry possibly mean? He suggests when terrorism isn't happening every day, when it isn't on the rise, that we will have reached a point where we can tolerate our situation without taking terrorism as seriously as we now are taking it. Surely he cannot mean this. We are not now seeing terrorist acts every day in the U.S., and even if we include the Middle East and Southeast Asia, we do not see events on the scale of 9/11 every year, much less every day. Once every five years would be more than enough to terrorize us.

So, let's assume (as Matt Bai does) that Kerry is optimistically expecting a future in which planes never again are flown into buildings, anthrax is never spread across a city, and a nuclear bomb is never detonated in one of our harbors. Leaving aside the question of what would remain as the "terrorism" we "know we're never going to end," let's consider just how Kerry hopes to eliminate all this really, really serious stuff. If Kerry has a "plan" to achieve this outcome, then presumably it involves our having better law enforcement. Yet, plainly law enforcement cannot suffice. First, we usually can't catch the bad guys before they do bad things (particularly if they have safe haven in nations we cannot invade without failing the "global test"), and, even if we could catch them, we can only prosecute people for crimes they've already committed. So, if we are to prevent such activities, it could only be by deterrence. Yet, how does Kerry hope to deter? Fear of punishment is not a credible deterrent threat to jihadists who regard martyrdom as an honor. The only viable alternative is to kill terrorists before they have the chance to act and to maintain a deterrent threat of a warlike response toward any state that sponsors or assists terrorist groups. This, of course, is the Bush Doctrine and involves our responding to terror as we would to an act of war and not as we do to ordinary crime. Plainly Kerry rejects that response to terror, so we are still left without any plan for eliminating the most egregious acts of terror.

Suppose we take Kerry not to be expressing an expectation about the worst acts of terror, but merely a wish. Let's join him and pretend that we no longer had to worry about "mega-terrorism." Let's indulge in the fantasy in which it is always September 10, and never mind how we might make this world actual. Yet, since Kerry does not dare to hope we could eliminate all acts of terror, we must still ask what terrorism would that leave as always with us? What terror can only be reduced and never eliminated? Presumably, we'd still have to concern ourselves with suicide bombings, with being shot by snipers at rest stops and service stations, with kidnappings and even beheadings. Now, while it is true that we live today under the threat of organized crime and serial killers, we are not all accustomed in this country to living under the threat of organized criminals whose business is itself serial killing. Who among us would find this tolerable? Who would not take such a prospect to threaten the very fabric of life itself? More chilling still would be the prospect of knowing that the state found a certain level of this activity to be tolerable and not worth the cost of complete elimination.

There are only two ways I can imagine Americans tolerating such terrorism in the way we tolerate a low level of ordinary crime. One way would be to be deceived: to be told, and to believe, that acts that were really the work of terrorist organizations were really nothing more than ordinary crimes. Bombs would go off, people would be found headless, but we the people would be assured that these crimes were not the work of terrorists, but only random acts by unaffiliated criminals and copycats. What would be rage against terrorist groups would then lack a focused target. Outrage would dissolve into a restless unease and eventual resignation. The second way we could tolerate a level of terrorism of the smaller scaled variety would be if we were to become much less sensitive to death and to injustice. It is only because we care much more deeply about life and justice than does the suicide bomber that they are inclined to volunteer for the job and we are apt to be horrified by their choice. Make us a bit more like them and we might only respond with a yawn when we hear of another suicide bomber killing a few score of us. Both prospects, that of being deceived and that of callous indifference to death and to injustice, are dreadful. That a candidate for the Presidency should hope for a day when terrorism will not bother us, when we consider it nothing more than a mere nuisance, is indeed frightening.

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|| headland, 12:25 AM

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