Thursday, February 26, 2009

Are Terrorists "Stupid"?

Over at Slate, Timothy Noah has begun an 8-part series called Why No More 9/11s?, in an attempt to answer the question that has probably stymied all of us at some point in the last eight years. Immediately following the September 11th attacks, most counterterrorism experts and others in the know predicted that it was only matter of days before the U.S. was attacked on its own soil again. Then, it was months. Then, a year at the most. As more and more time passed without incident, the fear of the "terrorist threat" became something more like a default, ready-to-hand fear that had morphed into a certain manner of existing, rather than a fear of a particular event. And still... no attacks.

The first part in Noah's series considers one theory to explain this: what he calls the Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory. If you look back at how close the 9/11 attackers came to being uncovered before they attacked, it does seem like the success of that mission ought to be attributed more to the fecklessness of U.S. intelligence agencies than the evil genius of terrorists. (And if you have still not taken the time to read the 9/11 Commission Report, you should do so.) Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, and it's hard to say with conviction how many things could have or should have been done differently. However, by August 2001-- when President George W. Bush was receiving briefs with titles like "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." -- I think it's safe to say that enough people were aware that (in the words of former CIA Director George Tenet) "the system was blinking red." So, on the Terrorists-Are-Dumb Theory, 9/11 never should have happened in the first place. The reason it hasn't happened again is that we learned our lesson, battened down the hatches, and closed all the loopholes that crazy people with crazy plans used to slip through.

I'm looking forward to reading the remaining seven parts of Noah's series, but one thing that bothers me a bit is his presumption that no more attacks on U.S. soil (on the order of the 9/11 attacks) somehow demonstrates that the U.S. hasn't been the victim of terrorism since. That presumption only holds, I think, if you believe that the only purpose of the 9/11 attacks was to take down the World Trade Towers, part of the Pentagon, four jet airliners and almost 3,000 innocent lives. What that presumption doesn't consider is that the purpose of the attacks was to "terrorize" a country that felt itself to be absolutely secure, absolutely powerful, absolutely immune to outside influence. "Terrorism"-- from the Latin terrorem-- is meant to cause "great fear or dread"... and that it most certainly did. What's more, it caused a great fear and dread that, as evidenced by Noah's very question ("why hasn't this happened again yet?"), continues to attack the American psyche even in the absence of terrorist "events."

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