If our way of life makes us vulnerable to terrorism, we need another way of lifeby Michael Lind / August 28, 2005 / Leave a comment
“They will not change our way of life,” the Queen declared on Friday 8th July. Following the al Qaeda attacks on 9/11, American leaders similarly insisted that their country’s libertarian way of life would not change in response to the threat of terrorism. ? The sentiment is admirable, but as a policy it is mistaken. We who live in liberal societies like Britain and America should change our way of life, to make ourselves less vulnerable to terrorism. ? This is a pessimistic view, I concede. From 2001 until now, optimists have dominated the debate. Conservative optimists like George Bush claim that the problem of jihadist terrorism can be solved by hunting down, killing or capturing a finite number of terrorists, chiefly by military means. Liberal optimists claim that the problem of jihadist terrorism can be solved by international efforts to bring prosperity to the poor of Muslim countries. ? Quite apart from the improbability that either a war of attrition or a Marshall plan for the middle east will stop al Qaeda, the threat of terrorism is not limited to jihadists like Osama bin Laden and his allies. In the US, only two of the last five major terrorist atrocities—the attacks of 9/11 and the previous bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993—were committed by jihadists. The other three were the work of home-grown terrorists of the far right (Eric Rudolph, the Atlanta Olympics bomber, and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber) and the radical left (Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber). According to the FBI, the leading domestic terrorist threat today comes from the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and similar violent eco-terrorist groups. In Japan, it was not foreigners but the apocalyptic Aum Shinriko cult that used sarin gas to murder people on the subways.
In the long run, the greatest menace to civilisation may come from solitary extremists, like the Unabomber, and from cults like Aum Shinriko. Biological terrorism, in the form of a plague, is potentially far more damaging than any other kind. Al Qaeda and other groups are unlikely to unleash epidemics which might kill their allies as well as their enemies. But deranged individuals and sects that want to hasten the end of the world may not be so restrained. The US has yet to apprehend the terrorist who mailed the “anthrax letters” in autumn 2001, killing a number of people. One plausible theory suggests that this killer is a US citizen with scientific expertise.
The damage that terrorists are capable of causing is likely to increase as technology progresses. Many individuals and groups already have access to more sophisticated computers than the superpowers possessed in the middle of the 20th century. Tomorrow it may be as easy for individuals to synthesise genetically engineered viruses in basement laboratories as it is to create or refine illegal drugs today.
Even terrorists with crude technology can cripple advanced societies and evaporate vast amounts of wealth. London transport was shut down for a day by four bombs. On 9/11, every plane in the air above or approaching the US was compelled to land by the government. This being the case, it is misleading to compare the chances of being killed by terrorists with the odds of being killed in a car accident or by a lightning strike. A car accident, like a lightning strike, does not shut down an entire city.
Should we change our way of life to be more secure from terrorism? We already have. A wave of hijackings in the 1970s led to the worldwide installation of metal detectors in airports. Submitting to searches of our persons and our luggage required us to sacrifice some of our liberty, but it worked. The epidemic of hijackings ended. The 9/11 hijackers had to use box-cutters as weapons because guns would have been detected. Subsequent increases in airport security seem to have worked in preventing a repeat of 9/11.
It is illogical to point, as some libertarians do, to terrorist plots that succeeded as evidence that security measures are ineffective. The relevant fact is not the few terrorist acts that have occurred, but the many others that were deterred or thwarted. London’s CCTV cameras, derided by many libertarians, may not have prevented the bombings, but they helped to identify the criminals.
Metal detectors at airports did not turn the US, Britain and similar liberal societies into police states. Neither will foolproof national identity cards and police cameras on every street corner. Technologies are not tyrannical; states are. Metternich used couriers to create a police state, and Stalin used telegrams and telephones. Liberal societies have managed to find a prudent balance between security and privacy in the past, and they can be counted on to do so in the future.
Submitting to reasonable additional security measures in travel, and to reasonable surveillance in public spaces and communication, may be the least of the changes that we in liberal nations are compelled to make. We may be living at the end of a centuries-long period in which sovereign territorial states monopolised ever more power. This was largely the result of the gunpowder revolution, which permitted modernising monarchies in Europe and Japan to crush warlords and impose order in chaotic lands. Democratic successor states adopted new methods of choosing their leaders but inherited powerful military and police forces from the old regimes.
Paradoxical as it may seem, a strong state is the precondition for individual liberty. We can go about our business unarmed only because we are confident that we are adequately protected by the government. In countries where government has crumbled or been smashed, like Afghanistan and Iraq, as in crime-ridden areas of otherwise civilised countries, life reverts to anarchy. People who are afraid to venture out of fortified homes are not free, whatever their abstract legal and political rights may be.
Perhaps the most chilling result of contemporary terrorism is the admission of our governments that they may not be able to protect us. A few years back, the Bush administration’s homeland security tsar told Americans to stock up on duct tape, to seal their windows in the event of poison gas attacks. In the aftermath of the London bombings, government security experts on both sides of the Atlantic have said that citizens should be more vigilant.
It may well be true that governments, through no fault of their own, as a result of the empowerment of dangerous individuals by technology, are losing the power to protect us from terrorism and its consequences. If this is the case, then it is all the more important for us to adjust the way we live and do business.
One response is to move away from potential terrorist targets. This is already happening. Even before the new Freedom Tower on the former World Trade Centre site was radically redesigned to make it more secure against truck bombs, much of New York’s financial services industry had migrated to less exposed locations in midtown Manhattan or left the city. The flight of jobs and workers from big cities to suburbs and small towns, a trend long underway, will accelerate.
And why not? Important government functions should be distributed throughout countries, like industries are, not clustered together in a few political and commercial capitals. Dispersal will not, in itself, prevent terrorist acts, but it would limit the ability of terrorists (who share Caligula’s sentiment: “I wish the Roman people had a single neck”) to paralyse commerce and government.
On 14th August 2003, an accident in the electrical grid plunged the entire US northeast into darkness. To prevent terrorists, domestic or foreign, from literally turning off the lights, countries should rely on many smaller and independent power grids, rather than one or a few nationwide grids. Other utilities also ought to be local. Likewise, transportation systems with many nodes instead of a few bottlenecks, desirable for other reasons, are a necessity in an age of terrorism.
The argument that we should show our contempt for terrorists by refusing to adopt reasonable precautions is bravado. A homeowner whose house has been repeatedly burgled is not giving in to burglars when he installs a security system; he is keeping them out. The threat of terror is here to stay. It is only prudent to take measures that increase the chances of thwarting terrorists or, in the event that they fail, of minimising the damage that they can cause. If our way of life makes us vulnerable to terrorism then we need another way of life.