Crazy AND Competent

Why aren’t there more terrorist attacks in the United States? Or in other developed countries, for that matter? With the exception of Israel, which is involved in an ongoing conflict and is surrounded by hostile states, terrorism is still relatively rare in the industrialized world. In many developing nations, on the other hand, from Latin America to Africa and Asia, terrorism and irregular conflict are commonplace. Most of these conflicts have a political root, and internal political stability clearly prevents this kind of ongoing insurgency within the United States. There is another safety net protecting the US, however: there simply aren’t that many individuals in the United States that are both crazy enough AND competent enough to execute a real terrorist plot.

The US market economy provides an amazing wealth and diversity of opportunity for a striving individual; one need look no further than the Mexican border to see that millions desire the opportunity to participate in the US employment market. The great majority of individuals competent enough to even contemplate a terrorist plot find themselves engaged in a productive career path from high school onward. The US, like any place on Earth, also has its share of individuals that harbor destructive or anti-social thoughts, and occasionally even plans for terrorism. Most in this group have no capability to execute on their dangerous ideas, and generally have nothing more than hate-filled invective stewing about in their heads.

Who then is left to cause terror in the homeland? There certainly are skilled and competent individuals in the United States who dislike US policy, and who may even harbor destructive plans. Even within this group, only very rarely will an individual choose to sacrifice the good life of America for the risk incumbent in prosecuting an act of terror. In the US, Timothy McVeigh is a rare example of such an individual. Among the millions of annual visitors to the US, the 9/11 hijackers represent a similarly rare breed.

All of this doesn’t mean that the US government can just drop its guard in securing the nation. Rather, it means that an intelligence-based approach is the only viable option for ferreting out the minority of minorities that is intent on causing harm. With the FBI, CIA, and NSA woefully understaffed in areas such as Arabic translation, it looks like we have a long ways still to go in catching that rare and elusive beast: the terrorist.

Post 9/11 – Are we any safer?

Yes, we are safer in that our sense of vigilance in the US has been heightened, both within the government and within the population as a whole. But in terms of broader American policy since 9/11, has it made us any safer?

We’ve successfully conquered unfriendly regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Numerous unfriendly regimes remain, however, and the population of almost every Muslim nation (and many non-Muslim nations) became vehemently anti-American after the Iraq war. If the US were to conquer Iran and Syria, effectively controlling the entire Middle East, we might gain security against these enemy states. Ah, but enemy states did not attack on 9/11 – stateless terrorists attacked on 9/11. These sorts of terrorists would have thousands of hiding places remaining, and we can never conquer and hold all of them.

Better intelligence and policework have led to the capture of more terrorists than our invasions; it’s time to redirect investment in that direction. At the end of the day, the US will have to come to terms with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. We’re spending 10 billion per month and losing a couple of soldiers per day to control one small nation of 25 million – this strategy cannot work on a wider scale. It’s time to invest in intelligence gathering, domestic security, and arms control. These are the realistic anti-terror strategies for the long run.