Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Osama bin Laden is smiling

Somewhere in the Pakistan tribal areas, or — more likely — the remote district of Chitral, Osama bin Laden is smiling.

The principles of asymmetric warfare are working like a charm. The United States, the mightiest nation on earth, the most powerful nation in the entirety of human history, is dancing like a marionette on strings pulled by terrorist specters.

The traveling public and the national media are in full frenzy mode over new body scanning technology and, er, thorough patdowns at airports. The outcry has grown to the point where the TSA is pleading with the public not to engage in a boycott that could turn the busy Thanksgiving travel weekend into a total nightmare.

The outrage has spawned its own immortal phrase: “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.”

Not exactly “Give me liberty or give me death” or “We would rather die in these ditches than give them up to the enemy” is it?

The threat of a bomb on an airplane is, of course, real. The attempt last Christmas by the “underwear bomber” was a serious one and so was the thwarted cargo plane bombing earlier this month. But the tactical beauty of asymmetric warfare is that attempts don’t have to succeed to create fear and disruption. The ever-present possibility of an attack is enough to set our transportation system on its ear.

A UPI poll indicates that, while people find the patdowns overly invasive, a pretty good-sized majority are OK with the body scans and are willing to let security trump privacy. The likelihood is that the current brouhaha will fade away in a week or two and body scans will become the new normal. Until the next threat or attempted attack ratchets up the tension again.

We have a strange attitude toward risk. The possibility of dying in a terrorist attack in America is infinitesimally small — and always has been, the 9/11 atrocity notwithstanding. You’re at far greater risk of death driving over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house this weekend.

At some point the law of diminishing returns has to kick in — ever greater security measures chasing an ever-smaller threat. Simply put, when it gets too difficult to bomb or hijack a plane, terrorists can always turn to other targets. Trains or subways as in Madrid or London — or a bomb-and-rifle attack on a shopping mall. Imagine the disruption that would ensue from a few coordinated attacks on shopping malls at the height of the Christmas season.

Living in a state of heightened anxiety over such deadly but rare episodes gives terrorism an impact far beyond its material effects. Creating that fear is, at once, the method, the tactics and the strategy of terrorism.

We are, in fact, at war with al-Qaeda and its ilk and we are all targets. Accept that, but don’t fear it. Choking to death on your sandwich is still a greater danger. We need to draw some lines and say enough is enough. We’ve done what we can to reduce our vulnerability to attack. Beyond a certain point lies the realm of “acceptable risk.”

Looks like when TSA employees are required to "touch our junk" we have bumped up against that line.

As Ronald Bailey wrote in Reason magazine:

...security measures — pervasive ID checkpoints, metal detectors, and phalanxes of security guards — increasingly clot the pathways of our public lives. It's easy to overreact when an atrocity takes place — to heed those who promise safety if only we will give the authorities the "tools" they want by surrendering to them some of our liberty. As President Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural speech said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." However, with risks this low there is no reason for us not to continue to live our lives as though terrorism doesn't matter — because it doesn’t really matter. We ultimately vanquish terrorism when we refuse to be terrorized.

That’s how you wipe that smirk off of Osama’s face.

Jim Cornelius, Editor

1 comment:

  1. There is also a constitutional issue here - searching people without cause may violate the 4th amendment:

    "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."