This is the second in a series of vignettes, an element in an essay in several parts. Each part will have a brief introduction - a framing device, I suppose, in which I use an incident in American history, and the words of an American political thinker, to set up the episode. The essay is about several things which, at this moment in history, need to be addressed collectively. I hope to give its readers something to think about and, of course, a means to deal with a complex set of issues in a way that is humane, rational, just, empathetic, realistic, and moral. If you'd like to read the first vignette, you can find it here.
|Photo by Alan Dooley (2005) A Texas Army National Guard Blackhawk black |
attempts to repair a levy breach in the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans
Not so long ago there was a hurricane. It had a name - Katrina.
Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, breaking dikes and devastating cities. She killed nearly 2000 people, caused nearly $108 billion in damage, resulted in the global embarrassment of the United States, and destroyed large parts of what might be America's most unique city. The area still has not recovered.
Many people ask, why were the seawalls and dikes not higher, stronger? The answer is simple - it would have cost too much money.
This is not the right question, frankly. The right question comes after that - what else what we might have done to alleviate the effects of the hurricane, both during and after? What things that would have cost less money? Could we have taken steps to move or simply, in the first instance, build human settlements to reflect natural geographic flooding boundaries? Yes. Could we have done to ensure emergency response systems were more robust, that communication between authorities and citizens was more clear, trusted, and less confrontational? Yes. Could our emergency response system at every level, local, county, state, and federal have been far better equipped? Yes. Could we have adopted foreign policies that kept our national guard and reserve in our borders, which is where militia have always been intended to serve (and have done so wonderfully in the past, even as they have adapted at times to problematic new roles overseas)? Yes.
We could have done all these things and the effect of Katrina would have been lessened, the hurt smaller and the response more effective.
But we didn't.
There will always be hurricanes. We will never stop them. This is a fact.
II. Dealing with Terrorism from a Place of Honesty
This part will require some toughness. Breath deep.
Before going any further it is essential to bear in mind that no one, individually or collectively, is safe. You are in danger from the moment of your birth to the moment you die. You live in a world of constant danger and threat. You and everyone you love will die and, frankly, there is a decent possibility that it will hurt and be frightening. This is not meant to comfort you. It is meant to liberate you.
You see, if we give into the illusion of safety we can imagine safety as a goal, an endpoint that is somehow achievable – if I just do or buy or sacrifice this, that, and the other, I will be safe. This is not true. Of course you can make yourself safer and you have a clear right to demand a government that takes rational steps to defend your life, your liberty, and your property. But no government on earth can make you wholly safe from anything, including and particularly terrorism.
Think of it like this - you cannot build a wall tall or thick enough to hold back the sea forever, against its every possible storm. With each iteration, each growth in height and width, the wall becomes increasingly unwieldy, expensive to add to and maintain and prevent from becoming a danger in and of itself. With each iteration the wall becomes ever more an end unto itself, a distraction from other threats and from expenditures on quality of life, a drain of time and energy. And yes, with each improvement it has the potential of preventing another disaster. If it has no flaws, which it will. If the disaster is not too great, which will happen. If the disaster predicted is the one that occurs, which will not always be the case. If we can afford to maintain it, which we will not always be able to.
The question then is one of diminishing returns – when does doing or buying or sacrificing something stop making sense? When is the outlay of things I might use to make myself and those I love happier and more content, or to serve some communal end, to the end of security stop being useful?
The response of the strategist must be this - do not put all your eggs into one basket. Develop overlapping strategies that leave you able to best respond to situational changes, predicted or unpredicted. Build walls, by all means, but keep them reasonable. But take other steps that will allow you to compensate for damage or the loss of the wall, to adapt to it. If you bankrupt yourself on a wall that is, inevitably, imperfect, what will you have left to respond to its failure with?
In the case of terrorism, as a human behavioral phenomenon, this becomes even more problematic - we are speaking not of inhuman physical forces, but complex, rational beings with different gifts, skills, perspectives, biases, experiences, geopolitical realities, and so forth. Not putting all of our eggs in one basket is not merely a question defensive infrastructure, social and physical, nor is it as simple as a complex series of overlapping solutions. It is also possible, indeed, necessary, to generate circumstances in which the threat, terrorists and potential terrorists themselves rather than an impersonal, pretend force called "terrorism," actually make the choice not to engage in terrorism.
There is only one clear cure, if we want to call it that, for terrorism. Terrorism is violence begat by violence – desperate, broken, angry people recruited and trained and given purpose in an effort to deal with a world in which they feel they have no stake. Violence, in the form of police and military action, can temporarily disrupt terrorism and, frankly, is a necessary part of dealing with it, but such violence is merely a pruning procedure. Rather, the only clear permanent solution to terrorism is to establish people in a place that has a fair, uncorrupt government with a well-functioning legal system, to give them a basic level of economic development with ongoing hope of further growth and decent access to global markets, political-economic-social equality in which men and women are given equal rights and, essentially, women have access to loans and reproductive health services, and education of a quality to make students meaningful competitors for international competition. Once these are well established, the development of stable democratic-republics embedded in the system of intergovernmental organizations can help stabilize and accentuate these gains.
It should be noted - this will sometimes mean the careful and precise use of military force. This force should be multinational, should obey the laws of war even to the detriment of the participants - it is only by winning in a condition of generating minimum hate that force has real long-term utility as a peace-generating tool. And our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, not to mention our intelligence assets, American and of our allies, are effective and capable, but they need the support of governments willing to finish the job once completed. Read or watch Charlie Wilson's War if you need a clear, easily digestable example - force applied but not capitalized often constitutes mere wasted resources, if not detrimental actions.
Let me be frank - this will not prevent the emergence of all terrorists. Terrorists and their equivalents are not going anywhere - they will emerge and reemerge over and over again in the future. They will frighten us and sometimes succeed in hurting and killing some of us. But such an agenda will make make their recruitment more difficult, their organizations less common, and their acts less frequent.
Let me be yet more frank – by helping underdeveloped and corrupt polities become better places we, the developed world, will make bad people rich and other bad people powerful. Every political system has had and will continue to have parasites, free-loaders who manipulate public systems in order to gain private and personal advantage. This justifies vigilance and cooperation between polities – it does not justify dismissal outright.
Finally, we in the powerful, stable, developed states, the rich and disproportionately blessed nations, bear some of the blame. No. We did not “cause” terrorism in a direct sense. But we have long benefited from exploitative political, military, and economic relations with the underdeveloped nations that, frankly, have made many people angry at us – and rightly so, since as democracies most of our nations by definition collectivize both success and error. Now, let it be said, the non-Western world was particularly devastated by a very few states and, in the case of the greater Islamic world, friction is largely the product of four imperial powers machinations between the late 18th and mid-20th Centuries – Britain, France, Russia, and China. Yet the United States has some part in this too – look at the regimes the US has supported (e.g. the Shah in Iran) and overthrown(e.g. the reformist anti-Shah Iranian state), the forces we’ve unleashed (particularly in our training of asymmetric fighters in the Soviet-Afghan war), and the problematic choices we’ve made strategically (e.g. the Second Iraqi-American War). Throw in our tendency to look the other way on issues involving Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia and there is a nice recipe for some understandable grassroots distaste.
This isn’t an indictment of the West or the United States. Rather it is an observation – there are historical forces our people are in part responsible for, some of these involved not merely from conflicting interests but fundamentally immoral choices, and – and this is important – we can do better, pursuing more consistent political goals with more uniform support of our political, economic, and social values, insisting on meaningful upholding of international development programs and the support of universal human rights, and greater transparency.
This is harder in the short-term – riskier, maybe even costlier. But it also the closest thing we have to a long-term “solution.” Be just. Make people less desperate. Model good government. Protect, educate, and empower people who will go on to tell their children and friends “yes – the Americans are good people.”
But even then, even under those circumstances, there will be terrorism. I know this because even my people, the Americans, engage in terrorism – usually, it should be noted, against other Americans.
To conclude, it needs to be said - terrorists are political actors. They aim to generate fear in order to cause others to change their policies. When we undermine our fundamental values - values of democracy, republicanism, individual liberty, privacy, public transparency, rule of law, humanity, and charity - in an effort to appease terrorists we have failed, we have lost. Equally, though, when we sacrifice these things in an effort to stop terrorists we have gone too far. The returns have diminished too much. We have failed. We have lost.