The age of courage

The failed bombing attempt at Times Square is a reminder that Americans continue to be targets of bloody-minded groups, driven to bring us death and suffering.

A handful of significant observations can be derived from this incident.  First, New Yorkers were spared quite literally by dumb luck.  The aspiring bomber mixed in the wrong ingredients; the bomb failed to detonate.  With a little more skill on the part of the perpetrator, the horror would have been unimaginable.

Recruiting well-trained killers appears to be a growing problem for our enemies, as demonstrated by the dud “undie-bomber” last Christmas Day and the self-immolating attack on Glasgow airport in 2007.  A good terrorist, I imagine, is hard to find.

But it would be lunacy to expect luck and the other side’s incompetence to protect us forever.

Second, the bomber didn’t come from a cave or a desert.  He came from Connecticut.  While Pakistani-born, he was an American citizen, American educated, with an MBA, a good job, a house in the suburbs.  He was us – with a difference.

Like the Fort Hood shooter last November, the would-be bomber was a seemingly integrated immigrant from a Muslim country who became unhinged by Islamist ideology.  He dis-integrated.  I don’t know how public the process was – in the case of the Fort Hood killer, the drama of his moral inversion was in full view of the authorities.

But again:  we can’t rely on terrorists to give the game away.  An American citizen bent on mayhem will elude the security traps set for foreign attackers, and will benefit from the government’s natural reluctance to spy on domestic religious groups.

Third, the would-be bomber claimed to be motivated in part by anger at US foreign policy – specifically, the use of Predator drones to kill off the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan.  Some have used this information to propose radical changes in US policy, aimed at preventing new attacks.  Terrorism against the US, this argument goes, will end when US actions cease to enrage Muslims.

I draw a radically different conclusion.  I don’t believe we can escape our fate as the world’s pervasive nation.  Even if our military everywhere returned home, our economic and cultural products would still suffocate those who blame us for their ills, and enrage them into action.  Such men find America’s embrace crushing; her retreats, perfidious and false.  Changes in US policy will leave them unchanged in their desire to do us harm.

If these observations are accurate, the chances that we can avoid a horrible atrocity – on the scale of what would have transpired if a car bomb exploded in Times Square – are, in my opinion, small.  We should give some thought, in advance, to how we wish our government and our country to respond.

I won’t touch on foreign policy, except to say that our actions in the world should never be shaped by the intent of our enemies.  This should be an axiomatic rule on moral and prudential grounds, but also, as I said above, for practical reasons.  US government policies will never make the United States small enough to be ignored by those with a grudge against us.

But there’s a domestic side to the equation that merits some reflection.  Terror attacks seek to alter the relationship between a people and their government.  In authoritarian countries like Egypt or Russia, the perpetrators hope to spark harsh repression, increasing the unpopularity of the regime.  In liberal democracies, they expect fearful governments to smother the population with protective measures.

The effect, in both situations, is to present the terrorist organization as the most important feature in the landscape – the greatest existential threat to the nation.

There’s little doubt this is how we responded to the horrors of 9/11.  We made “terror” our greatest enemy.  We turned Al Qaeda into the most potent threat to our survival as a free people.  We transformed Washington DC, once a beautiful city, into a jumble of Jersey barriers, and our airports into places where ordinary citizens are routinely treated like criminals.

Did we overreact to 9/11?  I live in the Washington area.  I took my children to see the charred ruins of the Pentagon.  I remember the feeling:  the anger, the sadness.  Far be it from me to to speak of overreaction.

My point, rather, is that we must learn from experience.  The next attack, if it comes,  must not be the justification for arbitrary rules and greater disruption of our way of life.

I want to make my meaning clear.  I don’t mean the Patriot Act, which simply extended measures already in place against organized crime.  I don’t necessarily mean the spread of surveillance – though obviously there are limits, and the Constitution tells us where they are to be found.

I mean the institutionalizing of bureaucratic fear:  turning America into an American airport.  I mean allowing the government, in its self-protecting panic, to place Jersey barriers between each citizen and the normal exercise of his freedoms.

For reasons I find hard to fathom, the American elites are afraid.  The terrorists have done a good job in terrifying our decision-makers.  To this day, the government finds it hard to link the Fort Hood killer to the Muslim faith he cited as his motive.  An Ivy League university refuses to publish the Danish cartoons of Muhammad in a book about the Danish cartoons of Muhammad.  A TV comedy channel censors a spoof about media skittishness in showing the image of Muhammad.

All this, while veiled behind noble sentiments, stinks of rank fear.  Our elites in government, academia, and the media don’t want to be blown up, and seem to say to any violent Islamist who is watching, “Kill them – not me.”

Of course, their fearful behavior doesn’t make them, or us, safer.  It simply magnifies the power of small but vicious groups by allowing their taboos – no matter how bizarre – to control the decisions of major American institutions.

We are said to live in an age of terror.  If that is the case, blame it on our brilliant elites.  Terror can’t be inflicted, after all:  it must be felt.

Should security checkpoints, with full-body scans, be instituted in Times Square, to prevent a more successful attack?  How about in 47th Street?  The New York subway?  The George Washington bridge?  Will such measures protect the public, or the homeland security bureaucrats in case the worst happens?  Even if effective, are they worth the increase in government power, and loss of individual freedom?

Ever the contrarian, I prefer to think that we live in an age of courage.  The American people are vigilant but unafraid.  They understand the need for some security measures, but they hate bureaucracy and are intolerant of changes in their way of life.

In the end, Americans will prefer to take a chance – they will bet on freedom over fear.

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