Stopping terrorism

I think there are some general guidelines that the U.S. as a society could follow to avoid terrorism. Unfortunately these will be rather to difficult to do in practice.

* Invest heavily in intelligence to find out what people are doing.

Spies and double agents seem to be the best sort of intelligence. Unfortunately they are put into very dangerous situations, which means that morally they must be restricted to only volunteers.

Surveillance technology is also an important part of this. Given the threat, I do believe that it is appropriate for the government to automatically tap everybody’s phone calls. However, in order to maintain our society, it is essential that that the dissemenation of this information be tightly restricted. In particular it must not be used in any court case or legal action which does not involve terrorism. History shows us that this is a very difficult restriction for the government to follow. Legal tools devised to combat terrorism are quickly perverted to use against organized crime and drugs. This is not acceptable.

Surveillance technology should not be oversold: it has historically not been useful in protecting against a threat. However, it also should not be undersold: it has been extremely useful in rapidly determining what happened. Dealing with terrorism must consider reaction as well as prevention.

* Invest heavily in tracking and control of dangerous radioactive and biological materials.

This is really a no-brainer. We should invest heavily in safely decomissioning existing radioactive materials including that in the former Soviet Union. We should try to track it whereever possible.

It is much harder to track biological materials, but we should do what we can.

* Don’t give people a reason to attack us.

This is the hardest one to implement. History shows us that suicide attacks, which are obviously the ones which are hardest to stop, are normally used against people who are perceived to be occupiers, and are not normally used against people who are in other countries. Osama bin Laden considered the U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia to be an occupation. And, indeed, we did move our forces out not long after 9/11. So: to avoid extreme forms of terrorism, don’t occupy other people’s countries. Duh.

Unfortunately our energy infrastructure requires us in some cases to use military force to ensure continued supply. This is a terrible idea on many levels. Our highest priority as a society should be to change this. There is unfortunately no single clear fix, but there are many competing solutions which may help. They should all be followed in parallel.

There is also the problem of Israel which is, to say the least, fraught with complexity. Israel is an ally which deserves our support. However, Israel is also perceived as an occupying force. While I know this is a touchy subject, I think that, especially given that many people still alive were born before Israel was created, it’s very difficult to argue that this perception is incorrect.

I think we should stop supplying arms to Israel. But we must not abandon the country militarily: I think we should deploy a permanent force in the Mediterranean to support the country if it is attacked. This will be expensive but not absurdly so by the standards of our defense budget. I think we should strongly support the Palestinians, which means investing to create jobs, a civil society, and a real nation. Israel and Palestine will never be easy neighbors. But I believe that it is possible to get them to the point of fighting with words rather than guns. I believe these steps will remove a huge incentive for people to attack us.

(As a side note, it is amazing to me that the Palestinians have not tried wide-spread non-violent resistance. Given the nature of Israel, a Palestinian Gandhi would be enormously effective.)

* Continue the reactive security theatre where reasonable.

By security theatre I mean the invasive searches required when boarding an airplane, the checking of IDs when entering goverment buildings, and the general climate of fear induced by the current administration. These things are almost completely useless against determined terrorists, and would have done nothing to prevent 9/11 in particular.

But they do address another serious problem, which is the random nutcase, or, to use John Brunner’s word, muckers. Muckers are the people who shoot up schools, blow up federal buildings in Oklahoma, set their shoes on fire on an airplane. They can not be controlled by the above approaches. But they are also neither highly intelligent nor well organized. While the security theatre does have a political goal of impressing ordinary citizens, it does also play an important role in preventing random attacks. On that basis it makes perfect sense for security theatre to be reactive: the muckers are more likely to repeat existing ideas than they are to come up with their own new ideas.

Finally, I want to note that despite all we do to prevent terrorism, the issue of random unprovoked violence is only going to get worse. The Industrial Revolution has steadily increased the amount of destructive power which an individual can wield. That trend isn’t slowing down. If you think things are bad now, wait until hand held rocket launchers get out of the hands of quasi-organized militias into the hands of the muckers. Then wait for the suitcase nuke to follow the same trend–although hopefully that will take another hundred years.

4 Comments »

  1. fche said,

    December 10, 2006 @ 4:16 am

    Most of this makes good sense, but the middle part (how not to make them hate us) is founded on favourable assumptions upon the jihadi/terrorist minds.

    What would happen if, upon our withdrawing support from Israel, some neighbouring nations attack it again? This seems hardly outlandish. Supporting them as half-heartedly as it is said Iraq is being supported now would not inspire confidence in Israel, nor in any other allies. Supporting them fully in such circumstances would mean going to full war – surely not an improvement over the status quo.

    Or if suddenly the jihadis “consider” us occupiers of lands wherever we go, for whatever reason barely rational or even outright twisted (“the whole world is muslim land”). How far to run before one turns and says “no”?

    Both these proposed acts of withdrawal hand control over the future to people whose cultural background is anything but pacifist, and leaves western nations in reaction mode. If the bet that they would somehow still become friendly turns out to be wrong, the price would be tremendous.

    If only there was an option that unambiguously expressed strength and wisdom.

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    December 12, 2006 @ 11:21 pm

    Which neighboring countries are likely to attack Israel in a manner which would lead to a full war? We’re buying off Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Jordan is an ally. Lebanon has no military power–note that Hezbollah won the recent war with Israel by defining winning as not being destroyed. That only leaves Syria among the neighboring countries, and Syria has no money and therefore has no military power.

    Among the other countries in the region the only one worth mentioning is Iran. Iran is certainly capable of attacking Israel with missiles–they did so last summer via their Hezbollah semi-proxy. But there is already nothing short of war which the U.S. can do to stop that. (Well, the U.S. could stop buying Iranian oil. But that is hardly likely.)

    I said that the U.S. should stop supplying arms to Israel, while continuing to support tthem. I don’t think there is any likely scenario which would lead to an attack on Israel under those circumstances. Of course circumstances could change, in which case the U.S. position could change.

    Your suggestion that the jihadis might suddenly decide that we are occupiers everywhere has no basis in history or in the statements made by the jihadis themselves. You can only support such a suggestion by arguing that they are completely irrational. They are not. Irrational people are ineffective.

    Worse, acting as though these possibilities will come true is to make a fundamental mistake. When considering military options, you must judge enemies by capabilities, not intentions. But when considering political options, that is a fatal error. In politics you must follow Reagan’s advice: “trust but verify.” If you always make the military choice, you are doomed to an ever-worsening spiral.

    It makes no sense to me that you say that taking these actions will hand control over the future to other people. The jihadis have no future. That’s why they are fighting so hard. The only possible future they have is to close their society completely off from the rest of the world. That’s a relatively short term solution, and it’s not one that is particularly dangerous to anybody else.

  3. fche said,

    December 26, 2006 @ 10:15 am

    > Which neighboring countries are likely to attack Israel in a manner which would lead to a
    > full war?

    Didn’t we already see a preview this summer? How could you not expect a *greater*
    degree of aggression toward Israel from the arabs if the USA formally pulls military
    support?

    > I said that the U.S. should stop supplying arms to Israel, while continuing to support
    > tthem

    What does that mean? You would prefer continuing to give them foreign/military
    aid, but not actual Made-in-the-USA hardware? Or no money either? Moral support?

    > Your suggestion that the jihadis might suddenly decide that we are occupiers
    > everywhere has no basis in history or in the statements made by the jihadis
    > themselves.

    That depends on how you interpret exhortations of Iran or Al Queda
    leadership for America to convert to islam.

    > You can only support such a suggestion by arguing that they are
    > completely irrational.

    Not at all. They may be driven by an irrational religious ideology (there’s a tautology)
    to do evil, which some of them carry out in a rational and calculating manner.

    > They are not. Irrational people are ineffective.

    If only I could share such optimism. Irrational people can be *dangerous*.
    People can be irrational about some things and deadly rational about other things.
    Surely you don’t consider them harmless.

    > Worse, acting as though these possibilities will come true is to make a fundamental
    > mistake. When considering military options, you must judge enemies by
    > capabilities, not intentions.

    OK, whose capabilities are we unclear about here? 20-odd people caused several
    tens of billions of dollars damage and several thousand deaths.

    > But when considering political options, that is a fatal error.
    > In politics you must follow Reagan’s advice: “trust but verify.”

    That worked with the russians and MAD. The only people the jihadis will let into
    their bases are CNN reporters.

    > If you always make the military choice, you are doomed to an ever-worsening spiral.

    Perhaps, but *never* making the military choice is suicidal. The challenge is
    picking one’s battles.

    > It makes no sense to me that you say that taking these actions will hand control over
    > the future to other people. The jihadis have no future. That’s why they are fighting so
    > hard.

    They believe they have a future – they don’t listen to blogs like this one to learn
    otherwise. They believe (and say outright numberous times) that jihad is the way to
    bring it about. If the US takes a passive pacifist approach, it is *by definition* giving
    control over at least the near term future to these madmen.

  4. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    December 26, 2006 @ 12:54 pm

    I don’t know who you are arguing against at the end, but I don’t think it’s me. I never said the U.S. should never make the military choice, or that it should take a “passive pacifist approach.” That is your projection, not my words.

    It seems to me that you are lumping together a number of different ideas as the same thing. But I’ll let you have the last word on this.

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