Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why the war on terror is an illusion

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, terrorism, crime

Cast a net wide enough, and everyone will be in it. This is the single flaw in Lone Wolf Terrorism: Understanding the Growing Threat by Jeffrey D. Simon. I'll get to that anon; otherwise, this excellent book is a comprehensive survey and diagnosis of a phenomenon that has always been with us, but could become much greater in the future.

We all know what is the greatest terrorism incident in U.S. history: the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by al Qaeda members in NYC and Washington, DC (the Shanksville, PA crash was probably intended to terminate in DC also). What was the second? The April 19, 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh and abetted by Terry Nichols.

It is hard to imagine a blast that large. I was in Stillwater, OK that day, and I heard the sound. Hearing what it had been on the radio later that evening, my wife and I went the next day to see it. The sight was amazing. So is the thought of a sound heard more than fifty miles away!

Simon introduces three themes:

  • The lone wolf is changing the dynamics of terrorism.
  • Technology plays a key role in terrorism, and this will increase.
  • A lone wolf can me more creative and innovative than a group.
He traces the history of terrorists who worked alone, or with only minimal help, such as the help Terry Nichols gave to Timothy McVeigh in helping him construct the fertilizer bomb. The early examples are primarily assassins, such as John Wilkes Booth. But he includes John Gilbert Graham, the first person to bomb a commercial aircraft in 1955, whose motive was entirely pecuniary; he'd heavily insured his mother who unknowingly carried the bomb onto the plane. This is because he has produced five categories of terrorism:
  • Religious – those such as radical Islamists or certain white supremacists who claim a religious motive for their racism.
  • Secular (i.e. political) – those such as the assassins of presidents or other public officials, including Timothy McVeigh, and Joseph Stack, who flew a small airplane into an IRS building in 2010.
  • Single-Issue – such as those who bomb abortion centers or sabotage logging equipment in old-growth forests.
  • Criminal – those who perform terroristic acts for financial gain.
  • Idiosyncratic – insane persons, such as schizophrenics or those with "antisocial personality disorder", driven by their delusions to kill or destroy. The Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, is included here.
J.G. Graham was a criminal terrorist by this scheme. For that matter, so is the Mafia when its depredations erupt into the public sphere, though they are usually more circumspect in their tactics of intimidation. I find myself troubled by this classification.

I understand his reasoning, to a point. He includes as "terrorists" all who commit acts that cause public terror. If, for some reason, a group of organized criminals had committed the 9/11 attacks, then issued a demand for, say a few billion dollars ransom in return for not doing it any more, is that a terrorist incident? I think not. It is a kind of extortion. There is an entire category of actions for which people who intimidate others too severely are charged with "terroristic threatening", but they are not considered terrorists; they are considered extortionists or other kinds of criminal. So I would deny the category of "criminal terrorist". Otherwise, it will develop into a wide net that includes everyone who goes on a destructive spree, like the guy who blew a gasket and used a tractor to tear down a neighbor's house.

Setting that matter aside, I was (properly) unsettled by his analysis of lone wolf creativity. A loner is not bound to the decisions of a leader or a committee. Thus it was a lone wolf, Bruce Ivins, who first committed bio-terror in the modern era, by sending anthrax spores through the mail in 2001. It is not certain, though, whether his intent was criminal (seeking publicity leading to quicker acceptance of an anthrax vaccine he'd developed) or political (anger at those blocking his research). I wonder if the distribution of "smallpox blankets" among Indian tribes in the 18th Century qualifies as bio-terror, or was it "just" attempted genocide? Simon predicts it will be a lone wolf who first creates havoc with Cyberterror (haven't hordes of virus coders already done that? Most of them work alone).

In the late chapters, Simon turns his attention to ways to prevent lone wolf terrorism—indeed, of terrorism in general—and, failing that, ways to ameliorate the conditions that lead to terrorism. This I find most useful. Terrorism, particularly by small cells and lone wolves, is an arms race between law enforcement agents and the terrorists. For example, it took a generation, but you can now take training courses in defeating a Polygraph. And terrorists are always coming up with new ways to smuggle bombs or bomb-making materials into airplanes and other public venues; the police and TSA and Homeland Security are engaged in a "catch up" race.

I liked the discussion of biometric identification by video, coupled to a hot computer. The way people walk is characteristic, for example. But then I remembered things like putting a tight piece of duct tape between someone's shoulder blades, or taping two of their toes together, to change their posture and gait. These methods are pretty old hat, but could easily defeat a biometric ID scheme.

Simon considers the ways our government and society have aroused ire in others. It is pretty well known, for example, that a lot of Osama bin Laden's hatred for America arose from our cavalier treatment of Muslims and rather open denigration of Islam. But the fire in his belly was because of what he saw as a promiscuous, excessively sinful society. So we may be able to reduce some of the resentment by treating the Muslim countries more respectfully. But what do we do about those who plan to impose Sharia law on the entire world?

By the way, my Islamic friends: this sort of thing was tried by the Christians, several times, most recently by John Calvin in Geneva in the 1600s. It has never worked. The Catholic Church imposed Canon Law for a few hundred years on much of Europe, but it fell apart as people learned more and more about science and psychology. Ironically, much of the impetus for the overthrow of Canon Law during the Enlightenment came from rediscovery of Greek scientific texts that had been preserved by Islamic scholars. The current generation of Sharia promoters are trying to bury the effects their remote ancestors brought about!

I have wondered for a long time, if a society could be developed in which the greatest number of people could develop their genuine abilities and use them to the fullest. Even those we consider unsavory. During the long ages in which European laws required death for a wide range of infractions, kings and governments employed great numbers of executioners. The squeamish need not apply; there were plenty of psychopathic killers whose urges could be in some measure satisfied by such work. I don't know what we would do with people who like to pull wings off butterflies, but such activities are sublimating something else and better understanding of psychology just might ferret out the real motive, and help such a person find a calling that makes him happy without harming others. We Americans claim to believe that the basic rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. While it is foolish to believe we can help absolutely everybody actually to achieve happiness, it is worthwhile striving to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

Yet a very good society, were it achieved, would not eliminate terrorism, either by groups or by individuals. "There is no pleasing some people." So the continuing "war on terror" is actually a branch of criminal jurisprudence, where the action is domestic, or of international diplomacy. Overcoming criminality, including terrorism, is a permanent game of Tetris. The blocks keep falling, and you never quite get them all. And I remember a saying from the Vietnam War: "It is costing us a quarter million dollars for each Viet Cong we kill. We could pay them off for less than that." Is it too crazy a notion to think we can just bribe most of the potential terrorists? I mean, we could have BOUGHT Viet Nam for what the war cost us.

Yeah, I know, the ideologues and single-issue (e.g. anti-abortion) folks will never be satisfied. But a happier society would go a long way toward removing two or three of the five categories above. Worth thinking about.

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