Some things just somehow say it all. In the recent midterm elections, in Delaware, in the one Senate debate, Christine O’Donnell, pressed on a policy matter, and looking a bit panicked, as it was clear she had no answer to the question hanging in the air, while her opponent had been really clear, came up with one of the classic attacks on her rival – “You’re just jealous because you weren’t on Saturday Night Live.” Or maybe that wasn’t classic – no one had ever said such a thing before. The political media was appalled, or amused, or puzzled. What was that about?
But maybe this is the new politics. And of course O’Donnell wasn’t exactly the Republican candidate – she was the Tea Party candidate who had knocked off the expected Republican candidate in the primaries. The Republican establishment, and particularly Karl Rove, saw a sure Senate seat slipping away. That Senate seat had been theirs until she came along – all the polling had shown that. All O’Donnell had was Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin on her side, explaining over and over that O’Donnell was wonderful – no, really, she was. It was a new world. O’Donnell was the future. And she lost, magnificently and thoroughly, to the moderately competent and boring and uncharismatic Democrat – and the competent and boring and uncharismatic Republican she had bumped off in the primary will now have to settle for obscurity, in Delaware, kind of the home of obscurity.
It seems enough voters agreed that politics wasn’t high school. Policy matters. And competence matters. That the cool kids don’t like you is beside the point. What you know and what you have done, and what will you do, seems to be what the voters cared about. O’Donnell bet the other way – she was cool and cute and in with the right crowd, the people who mattered, because they were way cool too. And of course the model for that was Sarah Palin – befuddled by policy, or befuddled by what little policy she actually knows exists, and the woman who just quit her job as governor less than halfway into her first term because it was just too tedious. Yes, actually governance is nerdy, and she wasn’t going to be a nerd. She was too cool, or too hot, for that. Yeah, you knew that girl in high school. She never did her homework – she just batted her baby-blues at the teacher – so she didn’t know much of anything, and didn’t develop skills at much of anything. But it didn’t matter. And if you thought it mattered you were just jealous – and that made you a real loser. High school is like that. Hey, do you have your own reality show, and a klutz of a rather dim-witted daughter who was a finalist on Dancing with the Stars?
But the O’Donnell-Palin bet is not a bad bet. Think about it – we are a youth culture, whatever that means, and perhaps most Americans are stuck in their senior year in high school, if all the baby boomers on Facebook are any indication, reconnecting with each other after all the long years. It’s easy enough to see that for many their senior year of high school was the peak of their lives. It’s been all downhill since – a bit of college, the boring career, the house in the suburbs, the kids, the bills, and all in all the dreams that never happened. There was one good year, when everything was possible, and then the walls closed in. And now there’s just Facebook, the shadow high school. On Facebook everyone’s eighteen.
But that’s a bad age. Adolescents are prone to overreaction, where everything is a crisis, and where wild anger – I’m never going to speak to you again! – is seen as noble and principled and right. There’s a lot of self-righteous pouting involved. And no one really understands you, of course. And there can be no compromise.
But that’s Fox News and the Tea Party. Or maybe it’s all of us. Your car breaks down again and you swear that, damn it, you’re never going to drive again. Most people have been there – although the feeling passes and you get the car fixed. On the other hand, some feelings don’t pass. With a lot of Americans those rag-heads flew those planes into those buildings nine years ago and damn it, we’ll wage war across the Middle East and, here we’ll just throw all Muslims in jail, and no one will ever build a mosque in Tennessee every again. And we’ll burn a few Korans just to piss them off. And we’ll torture anyone we damn well please, even if we get no useful information and never could get useful information from someone who will say anything just to get the pain to stop. And we see this as noble and principled and right. Yeah, the rest of the world may see this as self-righteous pouting, but screw them. No one understands us and there can be no compromise. High school is like that. And sometimes it feels like we’re all in high school.
And this is oddly pervasive. It seems that the National Park Service is trying to think of ways to bring a higher level of security to the Washington Monument, to protect it against terrorist attacks. And Bruce Schneier has an idea – he thinks we should just shut it down:
Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears.
An empty Washington Monument would serve as a constant reminder to those on Capitol Hill that they are afraid of the terrorists and what they could do. They’re afraid that by speaking honestly about the impossibility of attaining absolute security or the inevitability of terrorism – or that some American ideals are worth maintaining even in the face of adversity – they will be branded as “soft on terror.”
Schneier hates high school thinking, and sloppy thinking:
Terrorism isn’t a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds, using the death of innocents and destruction of property to make us fearful. Terrorists use the media to magnify their actions and further spread fear. And when we react out of fear, when we change our policy to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed – even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail – even if their attacks succeed.
Well, maybe, but Kevin Drum pushes back in Terrorism and Fear – saying maybe we should just shut it down, but that Schneier may be being too hard on people:
There’s a certain class of people to whom his prescription sounds great. Refuse to be terrorized! Stop being such babies! I’m a member of that class. I would happily accept a slightly increased risk of terrorist attack in return for a less intrusive security regime. I think we’re way too willing to let fear rule our culture. On a purely personal level, this stuff infuriates me.
But those of us who feel that way really have an obligation to understand just how out of the mainstream we are.
The idea is that Schneier is just statistically unusual:
I’m willing to bet that most of us are a bit nerdy, sort of hyper-analytical…. We’re comfortable – too comfortable, probably – viewing the ebb and flow of human lives as an accounting exercise. We’re also very sure of ourselves, generally pretty verbal, and we have soapboxes to shout from.
And, at a guess, we represent maybe 10% of the population – at most.
And here’s the heart of Drum’s argument:
Fear of violence is not a problem unique to America. It’s not a problem with the modern era. It’s not a problem of a political class grown suddenly cowardly. Human beings simply value physical security very, very highly. All human beings. They will do almost anything to feel secure from physical threats. Look at Israel. In order to protect themselves from attacks that caused a bit over 200 deaths in the peak year of 2002, they have embarked on a campaign of regular military offensives, a massive wall construction project, the steady takeover of Arab sections of Jerusalem, and a campaign of relentless oppression against Palestinians in occupied territories. Like it or not, that’s how people eventually react to campaigns of terror. It’s worth a lot not to get to that point.
I’m not pretending that our reaction to potential acts of terror has been correct or proportional or anything else. It hasn’t been, and our overreaction has been damaging on a number of levels. I’m only saying that we hyper-educated types need to at least try to understand how most people react to the prospect of directed violence. If, for example, I hear one more person compare the number of deaths from terrorism to the number of deaths from car accidents, I think I’m going to scream. Human beings react differently to accidental death than they do to deliberate attacks from other human beings. This is human nature 101. If you honestly think that the car-terrorism comparison is persuasive to anyone, you are so wildly out of touch with your fellow humans that there’s probably no hope for you.
So airport-style security at the Washington Monument might be an overreaction, or might not. One just needs to be careful:
But just telling the little people to suck it up and accept that sometimes people are going to die at the hands of terrorists? That’s about the worst, most condescending argument you could possibly invent. It ignores human nature; it ignores the fact that terrorism does, in fact, terrorize; and it ignores the historical reality of what happens when societies are attacked. It’s an argument that needs to go away.
But what is the real threat? That’s the real question. You don’t want to act like a pouting self-righteous teenager, but you don’t want to blow off real threats.
That’s the problem, and at Wired, Spencer Ackerman assesses, given a new publication, how low al-Qaeda has fallen:
Nine years ago, al Qaeda crashed a plane into the Pentagon and came dangerously close to taking out the White House. Now it wants to hit places like Cosi and Potbelly during the lunch rush in the hope of taking out “a few government employees,” writes an extremist using the name Yahya Ibrahim, who also wrote for the launch issue.
That’s not the only idea Inspire floats for al Qaeda wannabes. Got a pickup truck? Why not create the “ultimate mowing machine” by welding steel blades to the grill and driving up on crowded sidewalks to “mow down the enemies of Allah?”
But it’s “paramount” to target government workers, Ibrahim boasts, “and the location would also give the operation additional media attention,” according to our friend James Gordon Meek of the New York Daily News. In other words, killing a lot of people all at once is less important than letting Americans – and government workers in particular – know they aren’t safe in their capitol city.
Is that a real threat? Daniel Drezner discusses that in How Al Qaeda Has Become a Rock Star Cliché – it’s all bluster and foolishness – “even if this latest gambit succeeds in fomenting one or two attacks, this is really and truly small beer.”
And back in June CIA Chief Leon Panetta spoke with This Week’s Jake Tapper:
TAPPER: How many Al Qaida do you think are in Afghanistan?
PANETTA: I think the estimate on the number of Al Qaida is actually relatively small. I think at most, we’re looking at maybe 60 to 100, maybe less. It’s in that vicinity. There’s no question that the main location of Al Qaida is in tribal areas of Pakistan….
PANETTA: I think what’s happened is that the more we put pressure on the Al Qaida leadership in the tribal areas in Pakistan — and I would say that as a result of our operations, that the Taliban leadership is probably at its weakest point since 9/11 and their escape from Afghanistan into Pakistan. Having said that, they clearly are continuing to plan, continuing to try to attack this country, and they are using other ways to do it.
TAPPER: Al Qaida you’re talking about.
PANETTA: That’s correct. They are continuing to do that, and they’re using other ways to do it, which are in some ways more difficult to try to track. One is the individual who has no record of terrorism. That was true for the Detroit bomber in some ways. It was true for others.
And Panetta added this:
They’re using somebody who doesn’t have a record in terrorism – it’s tougher to track them. If they’re using people who are already here, who are in hiding and suddenly decide to come out and do an attack, that’s another potential threat that they’re engaged in. The third is the individual who decides to self-radicalize. Hasan did that in the Fort Hood shootings. Those are the kinds of threats that we see and we’re getting intelligence that shows that’s the kind of stream of threats that we face, much more difficult to track. At the same time, I think we’re doing a good job of moving against those threats. We’ve stopped some attacks – we continue to work the intelligence in all of these areas. But that area, those kinds of threats represent I think the most serious threat to the United States right now.
Drezner was not impressed:
Seriously? Sixty to a hundred guys? That’s it? As Philip Giraldi points out, this kind of assessment raises some Very Important Questions, like:”If CIA Director Leon Panetta is correct and al-Qaeda has been reduced to a tiny remnant why are we spending nearly a trillion dollars a year on defense, intelligence, and homeland security?”
He considers that a fair question, but thinks he know the answer:
The easy answers here are A) path dependence; and B) concerns about U.S. reputation. There’s a harder answer here, however, that is buried within Panetta’s comments, as well as those of just about every other counter-terrorism expert. Let’s call it the Counter-Terrorism Mantra, which consists of the following:
1) Al Qaeda is nowhere near as powerful as it was a decade ago
2) Al Qaeda is now really unpopular among Muslims worldwide
3) Because of their desperate straits, Al Qaeda is encouraging anyone and everyone to try attacking the United States
4) One of these homegrown, disgruntled sorts might not be… smart and lucky enough to succeed.
I understand why the Counter-Terrorism Mantra is used – because the political costs of underestimating Al Qaeda’s capabilities are far greater than overestimating their capabilities. That said this kind of mantra leads to Very Stupid and Costly policies.
And al-Qaeda’s abilities to execute their super-duper attacks “appear to be nil.”
There have been plenty of opportunities over the past five years for AQ to launch the kind of attack that would put fear into the heart of the West – the USA-England World Cup match, most recently – and there’s been nothing. Even if Captain Underpants or the Times Square bomber had succeeded, the carnage would have been on a far lower scale than the 9/11 attacks.
Isn’t it time that some rational cost-benefit analysis was applied to counter-terrorism policies?
But, as he writes for Foreign Policy, he knows he is part of Drum’s ten percent:
I can ask this question, because I can be dismissed as an out-of-touch, elitist, zombie-loving, pointy-headed academic who knows nothing about counter-terrorism.
Yeah, and he isn’t the cool kid in high school. He’s not Christine O’Donnell or Sarah Palin.
But he’s not alone, as there’s Peter Bergen in Vanity Fair:
It is not the West that faces an existential threat, but al-Qaeda. About two months after 9/11, bin Laden boasted to a group of supporters, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” The weak horse turned out to be bin Laden’s own. During the past decade, misguided actions taken in the name of the War on Terror – notably the invasion of Iraq, the bungled war in Afghanistan, and the heavy-handed approach to the treatment of prisoners -have bought bin Laden and his allies some time. These actions have won a certain amount of sympathy among Muslims for the Islamist cause. But they have not changed the underlying reality: al-Qaeda and groups that share its ideology are on the wrong side of history.
Bergen says look at the evidence:
Before 9/11, the group had acted freely in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda conducted its own foreign policy independent from the Taliban, taking the form, beginning in 1998, of multiple strikes on American government, military, and civilian targets. Before 9/11, al-Qaeda was an organization of global reach. The 9/11 attack itself played out around the world, with planning meetings in Malaysia, operatives taking flight lessons in the United States, coordination by plot leaders based in Hamburg, and money transfers from Dubai – activities overseen by al-Qaeda’s senior command from secure bases in Afghanistan. Almost all of this infrastructure was smashed after 9/11.
One of bin Laden’s key goals is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the House of Saud and the Mubarak family of Egypt with Taliban-style rule. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the “far enemy” (the United States and its Western allies), then watch as America recoils and the U.S.-backed Muslim regimes regarded as the “near enemy” collapse. The attacks on Washington and New York resulted in the direct opposite of his hopes. After 9/11, American troops occupied two Muslim countries and established new bases in several others. Relations between the United States and the authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes became stronger than ever, based on a shared goal of defeating violent Islamists….
Citizens in the West must come to understand – and their leaders must drive the point home – that although terrorist attacks, including attacks by al-Qaeda, will continue to happen, the real damage is done by the panic and lashing out that follows. This is the reaction that al-Qaeda craves – and it is why terrorism works. It’s easy to understand the emergence of a culture of paranoia coupled with rhetoric of vengeance. Prudence, calmness, and patience seem almost pusillanimous by comparison. But they work. Rare is the threat that can be defeated in large measure simply by deciding that we will not unduly fear it. Terrorism is one such threat.
Above all, we need to keep al-Qaeda in perspective, remembering that its assets are few, and shrinking.
And now Drezner says this:
I know that assessing the capabilities of terrorist networks is sometimes a no-win exercise, but isn’t it about time to acknowledge that Al Qaeda is no longer in the first tier of national security threats? And that maybe, just maybe, really expensive incursions related to Al Qaeda should be reassessed?
Am I missing anything?
Yep, he’s missing that most of America is still stuck in high school – a culture of paranoia coupled with rhetoric of vengeance. Everything is a crisis, where wild anger is seen as noble and principled and right. There’s a lot of self-righteous pouting involved too. And no one really understands us, of course. And there can be no compromise. And the rest of the world is just jealous because they weren’t on Saturday Night Live. That’s who we are.