Terrorist Whack-a-Mole and the Illusion of Safety

We need to stop throwing that old Ben Franklin quote about liberty and security at each other, and not just because Ben Franklin wasn’t talking about privacy rights.  When the Right advocates a new domestic security policy, the Left trots it out.  When the Left proposes new gun restrictions, the Right trots it out.  The fact that both “teams” are using the same argument against one another indicates neither has ideological consistency about either liberty or security.  The arguments about border security on the Right and guns on the Left are about which illusory solution each team reaches for to feel like they can control the uncontrollable. They are also not about radical islamism or white nationalism or mental health.  They are about fear of the unknown and the false notion that the government can protect us from each other.

Our security apparatus only creates an illusion of security

The Right’s big bête noire is “radical islamic terrorism,” and many are willing to sacrifice significant liberties (like the right against wireless search and seizure) and accept illiberal policies at home to play terrorist whack-a-mole.  Putting a pin in the discussion of how many moles we’re whacking abroad, it’s important to note that the security measures taken within the US, while designed to make people feel safer, don’t really achieve much more than that.

The TSA is the best and biggest example of a completely pointless security agency.   It is ineffective and reactionary.  The TSA was created in response to 9/11, and has succeeded only, as far as I can tell, in annoying passengers by trying to make sure they aren’t replicating tactics used by previous would-be terrorists. (Really?  We’re still taking off our shoes?)  These measures do not provide an effective screening program. TSA has a 95% failure rate in detecting explosives and weapons in luggage.  It may make people feel like they are safer, but it does not actually prevent anyone from getting on an airplane and blowing it up.

Likewise customs and border patrol displays selectively rigorous (usually *highly* profiled) vetting designed to make the public feel safe.  In airports, where most people see customs agents, they are able to conduct pretty thorough screening.  There are also crossings on the Mexican border that have significant screening. However, CBP is also responsible for all of our ports, 12,383 miles of coastline, a 5,525 mile border with Canada, and an approximately 2,000 mile border with Mexico.  Trump’s solution to this is to build a wall with Mexico.  This makes absolutely no sense.  For one thing, given that terrorism is one of the justifications given by the Right for this policy, it is worth noting that more terrorists enter the US from Canada than from Mexico.  Moreover, where there is an existing border wall in San Diego, the border patrol has found 30 tunnels in the last 10 years.  Trump’s wall is not going to keep radicalized terrorists out. It is not functional, it is psychological.

Fertilizer not butter

When domestic terror attacks occur, whether they are committed by white nationalists as in Charleston or Denver, or radicalized Muslims in Orlando or San Bernadino, the Left starts talking about guns.  They gin up mental health legislation trying to prevent access to guns, they talk about how their gun policy would have prevented the mass shooting (questionable at best), and explain how the NRA is preventing the US from eradicating terror attacks. This is complete nonsense.

Now I’m not suggesting that background checks and smart guns and any number of precautions are bad or that they will not help keep domestic abusers from buying guns or toddlers from shooting their friends. I am saying that they are not going to stop isolated, angry, disaffected humans, usually young men, from seeking out extreme ideologies or using violence to attack personal or ideological “enemies.”  It’s hard to predict who will be radicalized in this way, so immigration bans aren’t going to fix it.  These people won’t necessarily go to a psychologist, so mental health restrictions won’t always catch them. The ideologies vary, from Elliot Roger, the misogynist who blamed women for his pain, to Dylann Roof, who blamed black Americans, to Omar Mateen, who trained his hate on LGBT Americans.  The profile remains the same.

People with this radicalized profile are the same across the West, and there is no reason to believe removing guns from the equation is going to stop them.  The 7/7 bombings in London did not use guns.  Anders Breivik’s 2011 attacks in Norway did use a gun, but he used a car bomb too.  Attackers in Nice and Berlin have begun driving trucks into crowds of people as a means of inflicting terror.  The Columbine shooters created bombs as well as using guns, as did James Holmes. Tim McVeigh, the deadliest domestic terrorist in US history, used fertilizer to blow up a federal building.  Fertilizer.  Are we going to ban that too?  Radicalized individuals will find a way to inflict violence if that’s what they want to do.  This solution is no more narrowly tailored to address the problem than border walls.

There is no such thing as safety

Americans have never been able to understand, probably because of our oceans, that the world is dangerous, the government cannot completely stop that, and terrorists are just one of life’s dangers. When we had one large terrorist attack, we cracked down on our own citizens, invaded two countries, pissed off the entire world, and stuck ourselves with a really big tab.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited London in 1996 – there was a bomb threat in the Tube.  No one panicked.  Everyone just went about their day.  Likewise, on the day of the 7/7 bombings, when I called to check on friends, they were amused I felt the need to call, and said that they, like the rest of the city, were in a pub.  100+ years of terrorism by the IRA taught people they shouldn’t allow fear to affect their lives. As long as we allow our ideological teams to rile us up and entrench us in our camps fixating on islamist terrorism and border security on one hand, and white nationalism, mental health, and guns on the other, we will never find any kind of solution.

The government cannot prevent radicalization with security measures or gun restrictions.  In fact, both will probably create more anti-government radicals like Tim McVeigh. Americans have to let go of the idea of George W. Bush’s War on Terror.  The War on Terror is a war on disaffected, isolated, angry people, and we are never going to run out of them. They will never stop using violence to frighten people unless it stops working. The more we pursue them, the more they proliferate. When you whack one mole, another one is going to pop up. Our only solution is to stop being afraid.


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