Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years On

On this fifth anniversary of the attacks on New York and Washington, John Mueller thinks so. In an article in the current edition of Foreign Affairs Prof. Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State, asserts that the absence of an attack in the US in the five years since September 11 is a sign that there are no "sleeper cells" in the US, that violent Islamism has been exaggerated as a threat to American public safety, and that the tremendous scrutiny that has been imposed on Americans, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike, has correspondingly been a mistake:
But while keeping such potential dangers in mind, it is worth remembering that the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaedač”ike operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000 -- about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor. Even if there were a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years, the likelihood that an individual American would number among the dead would be two hundredths of a percent (or one in 5,000).

Although it remains heretical to say so, the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist -- reminiscent of those inspired by images of the 20-foot-tall Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the 20-foot-tall Communists at various points in the Cold War (particularly after Sputnik) -- may have been overblown, the threat presented within the United States by al Qaeda greatly exaggerated. The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.

Prof. Mueller addresses some of the arguments that might easily be raised against his thesis -- that jihadis have to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan rather than attacks in the US, that interdiction efforts by US intelligence have been extremely effective, etc. He handles most of them by appealing to general US government incompetence -- how could the same government that responded so incompetently to Katrina be so effective in countering an enemy as sinister as the jihadis are said to be? He also downplays the historic importance of the Islamist terrorism. Since 9/11, about the same number of people have died (other than in Iraqi and Afghanistan, although why those pushy should be excluded escapes me) in Islamist terror as die in American bathtubs every year.

Mark Steyn sees it differently. He emphasizes taking the terrorists at their word, and assuming that they ultimately can and will do what they say they will do:
Five years on, half America has retreated to the laziest old tropes, filtering the new struggle through the most drearily cobwebbed prisms: All dramatic national events are JFK-type conspiracies, all wars are Vietnam quagmires. Meanwhile, Ramzi Yousef's successors make their ambitions as plain as he did: They want to acquire nuclear technology in order to kill even more of us. And, given that free societies tend naturally toward a Katrina mentality of doing nothing until it happens, one morning we will wake up to another day like the "day that changed everything." Sept. 11 was less "a failure of imagination" than an ability to see that America's enemies were hiding in plain sight.

They still are.

So where do we stand? One can understand why President Bush, with all the nation's law-enforcement and intelligence apparatus at his disposal, and having in some sense been in charge and therefore responsible on that terrible day, is completely preoccupied by fears of another similar or even worse attack. On the other hand, the most dangerous expansions of government and abuses of its power always occur during times of perceived crisis. It seems clear to me that, first, there is a significant pool of young Muslim men who seek to maximize civilian casualties in the West, if they had a nuclear bomb, they would not hesitate to use it. They are downplayed now, but there were televised scenes then I'm gleeful celebrations in the Palestinian territories, and Steyn tells of receiving reports of similar celebrations in Europe and Canada. The angry men are found not just in the Middle East, but the angry Muslim neighborhoods of the UK, Holland, France, and perhaps the US as well. On the other hand, it is not clear how widespread this sentiment is. Osama bin Laden, according to polling data, was more popular in the Islamic world in the immediate aftermath of the attacks than he is now. (Indeed, Prof. Mueller makes the point that before and especially after the attacks, Islamist thought emphasized nonviolent activity, mostly in the Muslim world itself.)

But the historical record also strongly suggests that the more big government we pile on now, the less free we will be when "the war on terror" finally ends, if it does. (Although fear of and anger at the government can be taken too far. We forget now that it was initially assume did that tens of thousands of people might have died in the World Trade Center. The death toll was far lower, because emergency services had learned from the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and were able to evacuate people quite effectively.) Another legacy of September 11 has clearly been rising tribal solidarity among Muslims, perhaps portending long-term antagonisms among Muslim civilization and the rest of humanity. The only ultimate resolution lies in quarantining violent jihadi sentiment while keeping risk in perspective. The 9/11 attacks were the result of years of planning in a centralized organization in control of a nation-state (Afghanistan). Until jihadi sentiment peters out, the most likely threat comes from entrepreneurial cells, fomented by radical leaders at mosques and capable of carrying out relatively small attacks. (If jihadis were to gain control of Somalia or western Iraq, it might be a different story.) But the more aggressively law-enforcement pursues such cells, the more innocent people, they will dry into their dragnets and the more pro-jihadi sentiment they will create.

If this seems like a jumbled essay, that is because it addresses a very jumbled problem in which, to some extent, almost everyone is right. There is significant minority apocalyptic anti-Western sentiment among young Muslim men, they do present the theoretical possibility of catastrophic damage, aggressive law enforcement can make this sentiment worse and cost us our freedoms, and most Muslims in the West and elsewhere ultimately want to live normal lives, even as their societies are among the hardest places in the world to do that. Tangled problems, alas, yield unsatisfying solutions. But any answer lies in recognizing that, like any organized-crime operation, those in charge must be simply eliminated while the ordinary people susceptible to their incitements to violence must be given reason to choose alternatives.


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