April 23, 2013

The Inevitability of Terrorism: A Role for the Reality-Based Community

Cabinet Terrorism Drill
Cabinet Terrorism Drill (Photo credit: MDGovpics)
I did not follow the recent tragedy in Boston very closely, mostly because I am no longer watching television news. I caught bits and pieces on NPR, Twitter, and other atheist blogs. I was interested to see how quickly some blamed the bombing on atheism - this happened well before there were any suspects. Of course, even more were quick to blame Al Qaeda. It seems that in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, assigning blame is the top priority for some, even to the point where it is more important than conducting any sort of investigation.

I am aware of the controversy over whether the suspect who survived should be declared an "emery combatant" and stripped of all rights or tried in the criminal justice system, you know, like what would happen if the U.S. still bore any resemblance to the just nation we claim it is. But this is not what I want to address here. Instead, I'd like to look ahead to the next attack, the one after that, and the one after that. You see, I believe that incidents like this are part of our future, and I'd like to suggest that we in the reality-based community seek to combat hastily made decisions based on raw emotion with a calm, reasoned approach.  

The Inevitability of Terrorism in the U.S.

I believe that continued terrorist attacks on U.S. soil are inevitable, that many will be committed by persons already living here, and that the Boston bombing is precisely the sort of scenario we are most likely to see repeated.

Terrorist attacks are going to continue because of our imperialistic foreign policy and our increasingly polarized political system. Our Congress is essentially broken (e.g., 60 votes are required for the Senate to pass anything because of constant filibusters), and the average citizen feels increasingly powerless when it comes to his or her ability to influence the system. The combination of corporate-owned cable news and talk radio has managed to turn much of our population against each other. The people are mad, and this anger is largely being directed at manufactured domestic enemies.

When it comes to reducing terrorism, measures designed to track and deny access to individuals outside the country with known links to terrorist groups are far easier and more effective than attempting to stop potential domestic terrorists. The domestic terrorist is already living here, growing angrier by the day, and has easy access to a variety of weapons. Some will undoubtedly be radicalized by foreign Islamic groups, but we have seen again and again that people can also be radicalized right here at home by widespread Christian extremism.

When I say that the Boston bombing is the sort of thing we are going to see more of, I am thinking about the key ingredients of this incident:
  • Amateur perpetrators without sophisticated training,
  • Soft targets that allow for easy access and maximum potential for damage, and
  • High public visibility
Ask yourself how many locations there are in the U.S. that involve extremely soft targets where one could harm a large number of people while cameras and cell phones capture the carnage.  

Balancing Public Safety and Civil Liberties

All attempts to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future necessarily involve tension between public safety and individual freedom. Some measures could be implemented which might enhance public safety but which would be so aversive to civil liberties that they should not be permitted. In my opinion, certain forms of gun control could be such an example (although I do not mean to suggest that any form of gun control would be such an example).

Even more disturbing, there is a real risk of hastily adopting measures designed to enhance public safety which are ineffective and which intrude on civil liberties (e.g., the "security theater" approaches used today in most U.S. airports). It is not just that these approaches represent clear violations to civil liberties; they are also ineffective.

Perhaps the reality-based community can be a voice of reason here. Elected officials are going to face considerable pressure to look like they are doing something, especially in cases where the perpetrator turns out to be Muslim. It is in our collective interest to make sure that what they actually do is both effective and tolerable in terms of its implications for civil liberties.

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