I fully agree with the Armchair Generalist: it's an unjustified leap of faith to assume that terrorist organizations will inevitably try to acquire biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons:
We know that people can buy lab equipment and set up small scale production capable of producing BW agents. And yet... no earth-shattering kaboom.
To avoid repeating myself, here's what I've already written on this subject. I'll add a small coda: in some cases, terrorist groups may want to create the impression that they're about to get some kind of unconventional weapon, even if they're really not doing that. The bluff is cheaper than the actual program, and in some contexts, just as effective.
On the other hand, the bluff can also backfire. Since terrorists have brains, they do think through the pros and cons of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, for real, or as a bluff. Terrorist groups have internal arguments about this topic, and official policy can swing one way or the other.
It's a mistake to assume that, just because a scary weapon exists, terrorists will pursue it with an ant-like intensity and mindlessness. The possibility exists, but the probability is lower than most people think.
It's impossible not to juxtapose those two pieces of news. As a country, we've never fully recovered from the 1999 Columbine massacre. While we may not still grieve, schools still enforce all kinds of anti-violence measures with the same earnestness and occasional brainlessness of the post-9/11 Transportation Security Administration (TSA). School authorities tolerate no violent talk, just as TSA employees give you no choice about taking off your shoes. It's highly dubious whether either measure makes anyone measurably safer, but these are the sort of easy, obvious responses that any administrator would embrace.
Effective solutions to the risk of mass murder require more work, expertise, and time. Here's a graph of the money that the US federal government has budgeted for mental health care, distributed as block grants or in other forms. What you see isn't exactly a direct response to the Columbine massacre. Instead, it's a measure of how much your elected representatives put a value on mental health care in general. These figures come from the Department of Health and Human Services' yearly request for funding.
However, funding at the federal level is a poor measure of how money really gets spent, or how effectively we are taking care of the mentally ill (and potentially dangerous). What happens at the state and county levels is far more important. Those are the strata of our federal system where we run our prisons, employ our juvenile case workers, and fund our mental hospitals.
The story in California, where I live, looks a lot like the rest of the nation. Here's a study from 2005 that tells the by-now familiar story. Caseloads are rising. The per capita amount of time allotted to those in need, such as the "troubled teens" that have scared generations of Americans, has dropped. Fewer preventive services are available. Therefore, many of the mentally ill end up in prison, instead of treatment. Insurance that provides mental health coverage is shrinking, shifting the burden further to county and state governments.
In spite of the immediate risk that a mentally ill person may hurt himself or someone else, most Americans don't feel threatened. Even when something truly terrible happens, such as the Colombine massacre, we don't feel moved to act on the scale that the US government has since 9/11. Meanwhile, we encounter the mentally ill all the time, on the streets, in our schools and workplaces, and sometimes within our own families.
Mental health services, from therapy to medication, are imperfect mechanisms. Not every medication works with every patient, and not every patient reliably takes their medication. Therapy doesn't always work, and to work, it takes time.
At the same time, Americans ask far less of the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies involved in counterterrorism. (If you look at the rate of terrorist convictions, the government's scorecard for counterterrorism looks a lot worse than mental health services.) We feel more threatened by foreign terrorists, even though we're more likely to fall victim to crime at the hands of a mentally ill person. The Department of Homeland Security is a bloated embarrassment, gorged on the public trough, too lazy to be bothered to explain why it needs so much and does so little. American voters shrug, and continue to hand over their shoes and toothpaste in the security line.
As of this writing, I don't know who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, or why. Maybe the person was a paranoid schizophrenic, a psychopath with a gun, or just an evil person. I do know that America's collective perception of danger doesn't always fit reality. Government, as conservative critics have often been right to point out, isn't always the solution. On the other hand, budgets are where we show what we really value, because we're willing to spend money on it.
IN THE NEWS Tom Engelhardt's article about the proposed 9/11 memorial--"the largest, most expensive gravestone on earth"--captures many of my own feelings. There are no good choices about how to memorialize the World Trade Center victims; recent history has made these difficult decisions even more painful.
First, it's clear that the World Trade Center memorial is not going to be like the war memorial that marks American triumphs of right over wrong. You can feel sorrow when you visit the Gettysburg battlefield, or the Allied graveyard overlooking Omaha Beach, but the cold, stone markers stand for justifiable sacrifice as much as grievous loss. We beat the slave-holding Confederacy. We beat the genocidal Nazis. The historical and emotional scales dipped in the right direction.
However, there's no triumph to commemorate at Ground Zero in Manhattan. Nineteen terrorists, through a combination of guile and luck, slaughtered thousands of innocent office-workers and airline passengers. It's important not to leave a scar in the earth where the towers used to be; otherwise, you give the 9/11 hijackers and the people who helped them a kind of reverse triumphalist memorial, rubble instead of chiseled stone. Like the dead bodies and smashed buildings that the Nazis left in their wake, the wreckage of the 9/11 attacks need to be cleaned up.
But, short of paving over the original site of the World Trade Center, what should be done? The proposed underground museum, which will recount the 9/11 attacks, is fine, but at this point, hardly necessary. No one in the world, and certainly not in the United States, needs to be reminded of 9/11. Our memories of that day are not faulty; our grief hits us with no less force. Most battle sites lacked official markers or museums for years, sometimes decades, after the actual events. Why, then, the need to rush into construction a museum for the mass grave at the southern tip of Manhattan?
Engelhardt's article makes an important point about our memories and feelings about 9/11: since the Bush Administration worked very hard to connect the 9/11 attacks to the Iraq invasion, Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretaps, and other policies, it's nearly impossible to separate our feelings about 9/11 from our reactions to these subsequent events. Perhaps nothing should be done until Bush leaves office, since his legacy of hubris and calamity falls over the World Trade Center site as darkly as the shadow of two airliners slamming into the towers.
Certainly, the 1,776 "Freedom Tower" should not be built (if for no other reason than it gives future terrorists a brand new target). The allusion to the Declaration of Independence is too kitschy and inappropriate for chief target of the 9/11 terrorists. The name itself invites too much angst. Exactly what sort of "freedom" are we talking about? The freedoms that Americans enjoy, but Saudis and Egyptians do not? The freedom to continue living, in a way that the 9/11 victims cannot? The freedoms that Americans enjoyed before 9/11, but have been curtailed since then? Most of all, the name "Freedom Tower" borders on the sort of triumphalism which is exactly the opposite of what most Americans feel about 9/11. More than "Freedom Tower," two verbal points to describe a more complex emotional picture, this excerpt from Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins" might be the constellation of words that better approximates the shape of our feelings:
There is a blood red circle
On the cold dark ground
And the rain is falling down
The church door's thrown open
I can hear the organ's song
But the congregation's gone
My city of ruins
My city of ruins
Springsteen's song (written before 9/11, but which fit into his post-9/11 album The Rising with eerie appropriateness), continues with the sentiment that I think is more fitting to a World Trade Center memorial:
Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
Americans can't celebrate the 9/11 attacks, squeezing some non-existent victory out of that terrible day. We can rise up, in defiance of the sort of monstrous evil that killed the World Trade Center victims. We can abandon momentary despair for confidence, but not arrogance. They can renew their faith in our own country, without letting nineteen hijackers drive us to abandon our own cherished principles and institutions. We can take comfort in the fact that we are not alone (approximately one-fourth of the World Trade Center casualties were not US citizens; the world offered its help immediately after the attacks), instead of charging forth in unilateral rage. We can keep the 9/11 attacks in proper perspective (over 125,000 Americans died liberating Normandy in 1944, of which 1,465 died on D-Day alone), instead of embracing the role of World's Greatest Victim.
As a symbol of defiance against evil, and remembrance of those who died, one or two spotlights shining from Ground Zero might be a good idea. However, mounting a light on top of a 1,776-foot "Freedom Tower" is wrong for far too many reasons.
IN THE NEWS What can we make of the US military's decision to release Abdallah Tabarak, the former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, from Guantanamo Bay. Tabarak is an interesting figure, in no small part because of his relative's affiliations with Al Qaeda. Why this particular prisoner, when there are others without a distinct role in Al Qaeda, still in indefinite imprisonment? I can think of at least a few reasons:
Officials in the Moroccan government genuinely convinced their American counterparts that they would have more success with Tabarak.
Tabarak is being used as bait. Since he has relative freedom now, intelligence agencies may be closely monitoring him to see if he contacts any of his former compatriots. (Of course, Tabarak must know that he is under surveillance.)
Tabarak was never as important as the phrase Osama bin Laden's bodyguard implies. Every terrorist organization employs people--some may know the group's real activities, others may not--in a variety of minor support roles. Not every one is worthy of elevation to Bond villain status.
Tabarak struck a deal, exchanging something of value for his freedom.
The interrogators at Guantanamo Bay ran out of reasons to hold Tabarak.
Of course, none of these motives are mutually exclusive, so there's undoubtedly some mix of them at play. The Moroccan government has its reasons for asking for Tabarak; the US government has its reasons for letting him go.
IN THE NEWS The bombings in Jordan represent one of the scariest escalations in the two violent years since the invasion of Iraq. The invasion opened the door to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once confined to operating as a leader in Ansar al-Islam in the northern corner of Iraq, to operate on a much larger stage, against a ready-made supporting cast of American adversaries. Without asking permission from the Al Qaeda leadership, he christened his new organization Al Qaeda in Iraq, instantly gaining the cachet of the world's most notorious network.
As of last week, he has taken his production of terrorist theater to a new audience: the rest of the Middle East. Jordan is an ideal next stop, since it handily combines all the anxieties of the Middle East in one neat package:
Jordan is one step away from Israel, already beseiged by the second, more bloody intifada.
The majority of the Jordanian population is Palestinian, which instantly suggests the question, Were any Palestinians involved in these attacks?
The attacks are designed to send the message that peaceful, stable, and moderate regimes cannot provide safety to its citizens.
The attacks may also be an attempt to lure the United States into becoming more entangled in the politics of neighboring countries, to the detriment of the overall American war effort. In this respect, Al Qaeda in Iraq may be trying to construct as messy a regional war as the US faced simultaneously in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
The attacks may backfire. In fact, they may already have. Jordanians have already turned out en masse to denounce the attacks. The one operative captured, Sajida Mubarak Atrous al-Rishawi, may have information that can be used against Al Qaeda in Iraq. However, there may still be a great deal of justifiable anxiety in Amman, Tel Aviv, and Washington--not to mention Cairo, Riyadh, Ankara, and other capitols.
IN THE NEWS Herr Professor Taylor pointed me in the direction of this article, in which another blogger explains why he didn't post a 9/11 remembrance. It's worth reading.
I didn't post anything myself, and I changed my mind about explaining my rationale after reading Wordhoard's piece. I didn't post anything on Sunday, and I'm unlikely to ever again in the history of this blog, because, after four years, I think we can honor the dead without turning that day of horror into a perverse fetish. In fact, I think it's time that it's incumbent upon us, as US citizens, to do exactly that.
No one's feelings are in jeopardy if we don't memorialize 9/11 every year. On occasion, I still weep over the dead. I knew one of the most famous victims, Todd Beamer, through work. For others, I still feel the bonds of grief and outrage over the lives snuffed out because a handful of fanatics decided it was time to teach the United States a lesson. Unfortunately, the people who were the subject of this "lesson" were innocents--most Americans, but many not--who were just trying to get their work day started.
I also want to keep 9/11 in perspective. It wasn't the "day that changed everything." It was the day that a small group of clever terrorists got lucky. I don't want to hand them the power to transform my civilization, my nation, and myself. Taking political advantage of a mass murder is just wrong--whether you're last name is Atta or Rove.
For a while, Remember 9/11 was a way many people got through a national tragedy through collective determination. It was a poorly-phrased slogan, however. Like Support Our Troops, Remember 9/11 is stated as an imperative, not as a declarative sentence. I already support our troops, and I definitely remember 9/11. I don't need to be reminded--and, I assume, neither do you. As a nation, it's more important what we do in 2005 and beyond, not what we say.
IN THE NEWS Several times in the last few months, I've heard slightly different versions of the following thesis:
Because of the success of US counterterrorism efforts, Al Qaeda has increasingly depended on the Internet as a tool for recruiting members, discussing possible operations, and sharpening its terrorist doctrine.
Like most statements in the general press about terrorism, this one is partially true, and partially dead wrong. Yes, as this Washington Post article documents, Al Qaeda and its allies are using the Internet--often very cleverly. However, this "trend" isn't new, and it is not a response to US counterterrorism measures. Far from being hushed underground communiques, these channels of communication--web sites, message boards, instant messaging, SMS, and probably somwhere even podcasting--flourish out in the open. As the Post article astutely notes, the Internet is not only inherently useful to Al Qaeda, but it also fits its transnational view of Islamic revolution:
The Web's shapeless disregard for national boundaries and ethnic
markers fits exactly with bin Laden's original vision for al Qaeda,
which he founded to stimulate revolt among the worldwide Muslim ummah
, or community of believers. Bin Laden's appeal among some Muslims has
long flowed in part from his rare willingness among Arab leaders to
surround himself with racially and ethnically diverse followers, to
ignore ancient prejudices and national borders. In this sense of
utopian ambition, the Web has become a gathering place for a rainbow
coalition of jihadists.
Of course, not all the Islamist revolutionaries swapping notes on the Internet seek the same revolution. In fact, they often use the opportunity to denounce each other's Koranic interpretations, critique \how a particular rival is being too nationalistic or internationalist, and sneer at the outcome of a rival group's operations. However, they also do genuinely collaborate in what one observer has called "the open source model" of revolution.
Given how easy it is to disguise your location or identity on the Internet, going on the "cyberwar" offensive by blocking Islamist web sites would be pointless. What would be a worthwhile endeavor, however, would be to hire as many Arabic speakers as possible to monitor these sites. Better to take advantage of terrorist discussions that are out in the open than driving them undergroud.
And let's not kid ourselves that foreign Islamists are the only terrorists with an Internet footprint to follow. Domestic terrorist groups--white supermacists, militant Christian millennarians, and the like--also use the World Wide Web for external and internal communications. Revolutionaries since the Protestant Reformation have been eager "early adopters" of mass communications--including the Internet, long before the first airliner hit the World Trade Center.
IN THE NEWS All Things Considered has a brief interview with Marc Sageman, author of Understanding Terror Networks, about the links between Al Qaeda and the groups behind the recent bombings in Egypt and Great Britain. I think the headline on NPR's web site, "Are Freelancers Co-Opting Al Qaeda's Name?" is a bit off the mark. Still, the important point is understanding the loose but effective relationships between Al Qaeda and its "clients."
Another thought about the second London attack: It definitely seems like that group was far less competent than the group responsible for the first, highly lethal bombings. Sometimes Al Qaeda's investment in a group pays off; sometimes, it doesn't.