Terrorism is the use of violence against a civilian population with the goal of creating, well…terror. It has traditionally been regarded as a tool of asymetric warfare, a means for a weaker party in a conflict to exert political pressure on a militarily dominant enemy.
There are those who imagine that terrorism is about Islam, or American foreign policy, or other political, economic, or religious factors. They typically either have an axe to grind or have short, selective memories.
What we have discovered, from Northern Ireland to Israel to Oklahoma City and beyond, is that terrorism has almost no genuine political dimension. Modern terrorists almost everywhere in the world are loosely organized sociopaths. They may use a convoluted ideological banner to recruit and raise money; a Catholic Northern Ireland, Sharia law in Pakistan, or stopping abortion in America, but they have no authentic interest in politics. Give them what they say they want and they’ll find another excuse to blow up school buses. A terrorist movement might begin in concert with a political faction, but they are almost immediately beyond political control. They kill because that’s what they want to do. You stop them by killing or imprisoning them.
Terrorism is not America’s greatest foreign policy problem. In fact, it isn’t among the top ten. Vastly more people died in drunk-driving accidents on US roads last year than were killed in terrorist incidents globally. Terrorism is America’s greatest political distraction. Eventually we will place it in its proper perspective. When that happens it will lose the last shred of political value it retains. It won’t, however, go away.
It won’t go away because it doesn’t happen for political reasons. Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski had no coherent political goals. They could not have been dissuaded by some policy compromise. The society that gave rise to them didn’t suffer from a lack of education or job prospects. You get terrorists by the same process which creates serial killers or car thieves and you contain them by much the same methods.
The Bush Administration saw an opportunity in the “terrorist threat” to finally replace the yawning political gap left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. There’s nothing quite as valuable as a loathsome enemy to distract the electorate and stifle dissent. The “War on Terrorism” was a political windfall not to be missed. A war on a thing (think of the wars on poverty and drugs, we won those, right?) never ends. You can’t even properly define the shape of a victory. It goes on forever, justifying whatever costs it demands.
At some point as a culture we will have to reconcile ourselves to a certain degree of terrorist danger the same way we recognize the possibility of street crime or a random killing. We take reasonable precautions, we punish those responsible, but we go on with our lives. We will have to fight smarter, not louder. At the present rate of terrorist hysteria, soon we will only be legally able board a flight unconscious and shrink-wrapped in cellophane.
We must be very suspicious of any politician who promises to protect us from terrorism by limiting our freedom. The powerful emotional impact of terrorism makes it a fine tool of manipulation. Those who came before us could have bought security by a simple treaty with the Japanese and Germans, sparing themselves half a million dead and years of suffering. They refused to surrender liberty for security and now we call them the Greatest Generation.
Every time a politician says that their highest duty is to keep you safe, liberty is in danger. That is a slave’s bargain and we should have no part of it. Granted, it is pure rhetoric, politicians telling us what they think we want to hear. But by tolerating such talk we are sowing the seeds of disaster. We must remember that the greatest duty of our leadership is not to keep us safe, but to keep us free. If we are not willing to bleed and shed blood for our liberty then we no longer deserve it, and will not long have it. In a free society, terrorists are not as dangerous as cowards.