Table of Contents


Panic, Blunder, and Terrorism

Few things have been as personally painful for me to watch as America’s Blundering response to the 9-11 disaster, outlined above. The so-called War on Terror has been a decade-long distraction from America’s real problems, and thus has cost her dearly. If we can avoid another Blunder Chain of such magnitude in the future, the world will be the better for it.

Here’s a summary of my argument as to how we should repair the Blunders involved and the resulting scars. The detailed version follows.

A Criminal, Not a Military Problem

It is clear now that the first and biggest mistake the Bush Administration made in response to the 9-11 disaster was deciding that Big Terrorism was a military problem. The second largest of the many Blunders that cascaded out of this choice was the Iraq War and the resultant unrest here and abroad. The largest was trashing Rule of Law and civil liberties.

Efficiency Requires Civilian and Police Involvement

Terrorism is in fact a criminal problem because terrorists are first and foremost criminals. Their major characteristics are the same:

(We’ll deal with a minor but important difference between terrorists and other criminals below, in the section where I advocate business as usual.)

So combating terrorism cries out for policemen, not soldiers. Police usually have quite enough firepower to stop terrorists once they find them. It’s not that terrorists succeed because police are unable to outshoot them, but because they can’t be found before they cause trouble. They hide effectively among civilian populations.

Q: Who produces the best intelligence on civilian population?

A: That’s easy: Other civilians! Who hasn’t been watched by a neighbor?

This is the “See something? Tell somebody!” principle. Ordinary people can spot terrorists a hundred times more effectively than the government workers hired to be looking for terrorists can, because there are a thousand or more times as many civilians.

Police are, and are expected to be, very much involved in gathering intelligence on day-to-day activities from civilians in neighborhoods. To officially add anti-terrorism to normal police anti-criminal activities, as has been done in many developed countries, is very easy and very cost effective because it involves almost no change.

This is self-evident in the countries targeted by terrorists, like the US. Just about every competent police officer here is already on the lookout for terrorists along with drug dealers, pimps, and dangerous drivers. But as we will see more clearly below, it is also true for the countries that grow terrorists.

Yes, unless we want to set up a truly Orwellian security system, there will always be the possibility for some terrorist acts to be planned and executed with total secrecy, just as some bank heists and murders can be pulled off by people whose neighbors never suspected them. But dealing with the aftermath and catching the perpetrators is what the police and our criminal prosecutors are designed to do.

Maintaining Rule of Law Requires Civilian and Police Involvement

Besides efficiency, there is another very important reason to keep anti-terror a neighborhood and police activity rather than a military one: Because it supports Rule of Law, which is at the foundation of good government.

Soldiers do not fight terrorists well for two basic reasons: First, soldiers are trained to fight other soldiers, not criminals. Second, the military will use military intelligence to find terrorists, not the more effective technique of civilian intelligence.

Let’s unpack these assertions a bit and see how they intertwine.

Against terrorists, using a force designed to confront other militaries is not only using the wrong tool but, ironically, it can sow the seeds for more terrorism.

The US military intervention in Iraq was a factory that produced large numbers of mostly native guerrillas. At the start of the war there were small—perhaps vanishingly small—numbers of terrorists, many or most of them non-Iraqis. Sure, the modern military can deal effectively with armed insurrections, but creating them is not in its mission statement! Using the military to find terrorists in Iraq led it into putting down insurrectionists; American troops found themselves wrestling alligators instead of draining swamps.

The heart of the problem is that the objectives of military intelligence are very limited compared to civilian intelligence. Military intelligence is designed to find out things about other militaries: Troop movements and capabilities, the locations and sizes of bases, supply lines, and depots, etc. The amount of resources needed for this purpose is comparatively small.

But as already noted, terrorists have vanishingly small numbers. So they don’t need much infrastructure, and terrorist bases are much smaller and therefore harder to find than military bases. One of the famous al-Qaeda training bases in Afghanistan would have fit onto the parade ground at a large US military school. As I’ve argued above, the people best set up to find dangerous malcontents in a sea of benign civilians are police forces in conjunction with cooperative citizens. And as I’ll further argue below, the best people to deal with them after they’re caught are criminal prosecutors.

Another problem that confronts all intelligence gathering is separating fact from fantasy. The number of people who’ve fantasized about terrorist acts—even in American society, let alone in places where terrorism is closer to routine—is staggering compared to the acts actually committed. Distinguishing harmless cranks in a community from truly dangerous people is part and parcel of police work by neighborhood-level officers with cultural knowledge and sensitivity, who literally and figuratively know the territory.

Where that has been impossible, as in Iraq before enough good police had been trained, soldiers may be forced to collect intelligence—while constructing civilian infrastructure and doing other good works to ease their access to civilian population. But that collection is secondary for them, and awkward. When they can’t easily use civilians to find terrorists, they fall back on interrogating captured or betrayed terrorists to find others. When knocking on doors and asking people fails, kicking in doors and rounding up people will likely be substituted.

The vicious cycle caused by applying a foreign military to an essentially civilian problem runs like this:

Conclusion: Support your local policeman, not your local soldier. Unless, of course, they’re temporarily one and the same, as in the Iraqi areas where the Sunni Awakening succeeded.

Only as a community comes to feel that allowing terrorism is inherently a bad idea, and that reporting suspicions will improve their lives, not make them worse, does the tide begin to turn.

Terrorists’ Day in Court

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed of Oct 19, 2010, about trying suspected terrorists in civilian courts, Michael B. Mukasey, who was US Attorney General from 2007 to 2009, declares:

“The Justice Department claims that our courts are well suited to the task.

“Based on my experience trying such cases, and what I saw as attorney general, they aren’t. That is not to say that civilian courts cannot ever handle terrorist prosecutions, but rather that their role in a war on terror—to use an unfashionably harsh phrase—should be, as the term ‘war’ would suggest, a supporting and not a principal role.

“The challenges of a terrorism trial are overwhelming. …”

Grrrr … Terrorism is so special that Rule of Law can’t handle it? What hooey!

Mukasey claims that the challenges of such trials and their aftermath are overwhelmingly expensive and, well, frightening. But his own description of the security difficulties shows that they’re little worse than those for a mob boss’s trial, a burden that big-city legal establishments have no trouble shouldering. In fact, given a choice of participation in a trial that would anger people living either in North Jersey or in Pakistan, I’d bet most Manhattanites would rather go up against the terrorists.

Mukasey also has other worries. Extremists would find a fertile recruiting ground in prisons —as gang members do now, a point he doesn’t find relevant enough to mention—and be likely to attack guards, again as gang members do now.

Moreover, giving defendants access to information about the cases against them could “provide a cornucopia of valuable information to terrorists”, including the sources and methods that intelligence services guard so closely. The fallacy here is that military intelligence is going to work better than enfranchised neighborhood intelligence. As demonstrated above, it’s neither as efficient nor as effective.

All this reflects the scar that the post–9-11 Blunders have created in America’s thinking, particularly for people living in New York City and Washington, where people got to be not just spectators but participants.

But we need to rise above our fear. If civilian courts can’t handle trying terrorists, then we are disenfranchising civilians from being part of the solution to terrorism. And doing that will be a major part of the recipe for more decades of terrorist disaster.

The Theater of Terror

Effective Advertising

Big Media and Big Government are feeding Big Terrorism because it’s Big Theater.

Big Media likes a good news story, but it loves a steady stream of good stories with a familiar theme even more. So it has no problem with playing up the terrorist angle in news.

In this case, what’s good for Big Media is good for Big Terrorism, which is advertising a cause. Just as carefully as businesspeople, major terrorist organizations look to get value for time, trouble, and money spent. Whenever terrorism and/or anti-terrorism becomes Big News, that encourages terrorists to repeat their advertising buy. And this, in turn, encourages them to put more resources into advertising in Big Media.

Big Terrorism clearly has read the class notes from Marketing 101:

“As much as possible get someone else to pay for your advertising. If you frame your advertising as a news event, not only will the media carry it for free but they will give it credibility you can’t buy.”

And Big Government horns into the advertising act when it trumpets its anti-terror measures in order to court votes.

Everyone wins … except for the huge damage done to the community by stoking fear.

Balanced Reporting?

Terrorism has been a booming entertainment segment of the early 21st century. Compare these two news events.

Fire in Suwon

On July 22, 2004, a large commercial building in Suwon, Korea, caught fire and burned for roughly twelve hours. At their height the flames were gushing out of the top two floors while huge fire hoses on hoists were spraying away to knock them down. It was quite spectacular to watch. I know because I was watching and photographing it from my office window, a few blocks away.

The damage done: Tens of millions of dollars for the building proper, more tens of millions for the cleaning up, and yet more tens of millions for the inconvenience and lost business opportunities of not having the building available for a few months while it got rebuilt. No lives were lost.

But, spectacular as this fire was, I could not find an article about it at the time in the Korea Herald (Korea’s largest English language newspaper), The Asian Wall Street Journal, or using Google News Search.

Flight to LAX

Three days later, July 25th, 2004, a United Airlines Boeing 747 airplane turned around 90 minutes after taking off from Sydney, Australia, and returned to SYD. Why? Someone had written “BOB” on a sick-bag and dropped it near a toilet, and someone else turned it in to a flight attendant. Instead of guessing that this was something innocuous like the name Bob, the code for Bora Bora airport, “Best on Board” (the hunkiest passenger, the foxiest, or the strongest choice for assisting in plane evacuation), or even “Barf on Board”, the pilot decided it could well mean “Bomb on Board” and proceeded into anti-terrorist Panic-mode Standard Operating Procedure.

The damage done: Tens of thousands of dollars for the aborted flight, no physical damage, at most a few more tens of thousands of dollars in inconvenience and lost business opportunities to those on board—all or nearly all passenger departed again the next day—with little follow-on impact.

But stupid and low harm as this incident was, I found stories about it on Google News Search for two days and it made The Asian Wall Street Journal.


The Suwon incident was spectacularly visual, at least as suitable for sound biting (from firefighters and from the building tenants and owners) as the second incident, and economically impactful, but it was lightly reported if at all. It had nothing to do with terrorism.

The airplane incident generated no decent graphics and virtually no economic impact, but it immediately became hot news—even before its fascinatingly ridiculous aspect was known—and lasted for two days.

Forget the Muslim charities whose comparatively tiny cash flows may sometimes be skimmed for Hamas or Hezbollah. Let’s indict Big Media for de facto subsidizing Big Terrorism!

Breaking the Cycle

To break this vicious cycle of terrorists making news stories that promote more terrorist news stories, the following will have to be recognized:

An Innovative Advertising Discount

To help Big Media break its habit of sensationalizing terrorism, here’s a proposal to introduce some negative feedback through self regulation. It won’t be adopted, but I’m making it anyway for us to think about.

Big Media should declare promoting terrorism to be both poor taste and bad business, and support that position with a Terrorist-Slant Discount Program (TSDP) for its advertisers.

All print product or programming controlled by an advertising-selling entity (which would include news and PSAs) would be monitored for terrorist-related content—terrorism and/or anti-terrorism—rounded to whole minutes or column inches. Any half hour on the air or any page in print with more than 50% such content would count as devoted entirely to terrorism.

Each month the terror percentage for each media outlet would be calculated. The difference between an entity’s self-declared allowance and its actual percentage would be applied as the terrorist-slant discount on all advertisements run over that month. So if the West Orange Intelligencer proclaimed 4% but came up with 5% for August, its advertisers would be rebated $1 for every $100 spent. But if TCFC, The Classic Film Channel, kept to its 0.5% target and came in at 0.4%, mostly for running The Battle of Algiers, no adjustment would be made.

The advantages of this approach are:

This change would do a lot to help cool the current terrorist hysteria. I can imagine that without extensive media coverage, Big Terrorism’s fascination with terrorist acts would wither away. The fanatics might even end up buying cheap, obnoxious advertising on cable and late night TV and/or in apartment-locating sheets.

An Alternative Plan: Jawboning

To get the media back to pre–9-11 bliss, when it didn’t see a terrorist behind every bush (or Bush), we must pressure them specifically toward that blissful state.

This means speaking out directly to the media, through a concerted campaign of emails, letters on paper, comments on websites, phone calls to reporters, etc. With public opinion strongly behind them, the news media would have the courage NOT to report every terrorist angle in the news flow they see and generate. We must convince them that we, the community, don’t appreciate their constant fear-mongering. They must live up to their own concept of how they run their industry and become truly responsible, not hysterical, in their reporting on terror.

“Yes,” we should say, “report significant news events. But don’t go searching for terrorism behind them. And for God’s sake, don’t use terrorist-related incidents as an excuse to ‘explain the terrorist position’. Nothing promotes terrorism more than that kind of high-potency advertising!”

Similarly, if terrorist-themed entertainment lost eyeballs and sales, it would dry up.

Dealing with Novelty through Business as Usual

The tactic of using violence to advertise a cause dates back at least to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when, to protest loss of skilled weaver jobs, the Luddites of England broke mechanical looms, burned fabric mills, threatened magistrates who opposed them, and even clashed with the army.

“Terrorism” isn’t even a new word; it, too, goes back a couple of hundred years. But the techniques and applications of terror “to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects” do evolve.

In fact, one thing that makes terrorists different than other criminals is the more frequent novelty of their acts. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were the first to spectacularly use a truck-bomb on a US building. As noted above, the 9-11 people were the first to suicide-hijack an airplane, among other novelties.

When it occurs, the novelty element is very important. But the old saw, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” applies. Known styles of terrorist act can often be kept from recurring by increasing existing vigilance and/or making it better informed, without additional precautions.

Just as important, if elaborate precautions are taken to keep something from happening, they are expensive and usually don’t work.

The key anti-terrorist tactic that the government and the community are not employing is “business as usual”: Dealing with a novel terrorist attack by recognizing that it is indeed novel, and then getting on with our lives, making our communities stable and prosperous.

People won’t support terrorism if they feel they have a stake in community well-being and strong faith in the justness of their government. Rule of Law is an excellent way of establishing that faith, and in fact the usual way, but not the only way. (Just for illustration, widespread belief in the divine appointment of a benevolent despot also works.)

This form of anti-terrorism is identical to anti-criminalism, which means that every effort to fight crime also combats terrorism.

Unfortunately, the American response in the 2000s has been anything but business as usual. Instead, terrorist “advertising” had its desired effect, greatly changing the actions of the community.

When the Bush administration reallocated billions of federal dollars and encouraged state and local governments to spend more billions, we were not unbowed by terrorists but succumbing hook, line, and sinker to their message: “Be afraid. Be very afraid!”

The Homeland Security Department is emblematic of exactly what the government should not be doing. If its budget were proportional to the actual once-in-a-blue-moon threat—compared to the much larger threats posed to our society by crime, poverty, poor public education, and other disenfranchisements—then the department would be incapable of adversely impacting Americans’ lives. Instead, the so-called War on Terrorism is one more of the exceptions to Rule of Law that have accumulated in response to various crises du jour, such as Prohibition, the War on Drugs, and immigration difficulties.

Each such exception has isolated a substantial and pervasive part of the community, and that isolation keeps those community members from feeling that they are benefiting fully from Rule of Law.

The Curse of Overprotectiveness

We’ve all seen a TV reporter stick a microphone in the face of a government official at some disaster scene and ask, “What are you doing to prevent this from happening again?”

This procedure is deadly to Rule of Law because it makes the politician or bureaucrat feel they have to do something (or promise to do it) when often the best thing they could do is … nothing! Sometimes things just happen, regardless of human intervention. And sometimes things should just be allowed to happen.

In 2003 after the Columbia disaster, NASA announced it would no longer use the Space Shuttle to repair the Hubble space telescope. Why? Because no one was at the Hubble end to inspect the shuttle for post-launch problems! Flying the Space Shuttle was inherently risky, and while that risk could be minimized, it couldn’t be eliminated. So going back and forth to Hubble without mid-flight inspection should simply have been allowed.

But NASA officials were afraid that if anything happened on their watch, whether or not it was actually their responsibility, they’d be pilloried in the media. So they succumbed to the Curse of Overprotectiveness. (However, this particular hysteria subsided enough that one last mission was conducted in 2009.)

The first step in breaking that deadly Curse is for officials involved with disasters to tell reporters the truth. They must be willing to say things like, “I don’t know if there is anything that could have prevented this! Zero errors aren’t humanly achievable in this business. But if it looks productive to review our procedures and standards, we will certainly do so.” And we, the community, must be willing to accept that answer.

The impulse to overprotectiveness is made worse by the current American system for determining legal liability. On trips to New Zealand, I have seen how differently a society operates where people take more responsibility for their own actions. For instance, people rappel down the sides of big-city hotels there. American hotels can’t allow this for fear a court will decide that a person who gets hurt rappelling down the side of their building wasn’t 100% responsible for their own injury, so the hotel will be liable.

This self-restriction is a sad loss for America.

Terrorists, Guerillas, and Saboteurs

Terrorists, guerillas, and saboteurs all use violence to support a cause, but they are different, so different tactics are called for to deal with them.

So long as deep community disenfranchisement exists, the impulse will persist to do violence to an enemy unreachable by any moral, political, or conventional military effort that the disenfranchised community can mount. Acted on, this impulse produces sabotage campaigns and/or guerilla warfare. For purposes of this discussion, the key difference between these and terrorism is the advertising component.

The primary goal of guerillas and saboteurs is directly damaging the enemy or infrastructure that supports the enemy. The primary goal of the terrorist is advertising the cause.

What is the same is that all are “unconventional combatants” as defined by the Geneva Convention—they are fighting but not wearing uniforms to indicate they are soldiers, and they are small fish willing to hide in a big sea of civilians.

For guerillas and saboteurs, reducing publicity will have little effect on their activity. Instead, it must be combated like vandalism, by vigilance and by convincing the community—and the perpetrators—that doing damage is not helping; the community is suffering more than the enemy.

This latter goal can be achieved through the sabotage target becoming either sufficiently loved or sufficiently feared. Historically, variations of “ten of your civilians tortured for every one of our people wounded” have been aimed at the latter state. (No, I don’t advocate such tactics for US-occupied territories. We should stick with winning hearts and minds.)

Either way, as the disenfranchised part of the community becomes against overt resistance, only the most fanatic and psychopathic will keep engaging in it.

On the other hand, as 9-11 is the Mona Lisa of organized Big Terrorism, so the Norway attacks by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011 are the masterpiece of lone gunman Big Terrorism. Like Bin Laden, Breivik made it perfectly clear that he did violence to advertise his cause and start a war.

What Next?

What must we do about our current War on Terrorism? How do we “win” it?

Part of the answer is to rename it, and that is already happening—some public figures are shying away from calling it a war.

The next step is to focus on what is being advertised. We must find a solution to the root disenfranchisement that supports the violent advertising: The social situation of Muslims in the Near East and Europe.

Extremism in these communities has been fueled by multiple causes, including:

Therefore the US should be doing everything possible so that Muslim communities, too, feel that Rule of Law—Sharia or otherwise!—applies to each member, that each member benefits from it, and that International Law (such as it is) is on their side in developing their communities, local, national, and immigrant.

The poster children of Muslim disenfranchisement are the Palestinian refugees. They have been without formal government for over sixty years! These people must be enfranchised, either by officially solving the Palestine issue, or by somehow moving beyond an official solution so that it becomes irrelevant to enfranchisement. Everyone knows that this step should have been taken decades ago, but I’m afraid I can’t offer any new formula for it. Anyone who can make it happen will be a shoo-in to pick up the following year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The Arab Spring of 2011 is a move in the right direction for all the problems listed above, even the employment situation, eventually. Like all social uprisings, it’s scary and it will involve a lot of experimenting. Much will go wrong, as continuing news reports indicate in early 2012 (e.g., frequently from Egypt, occasionally from Bahrain, and constantly from Syria). But the ultimate result will be an improvement, increasing enfranchisement while reducing violence and the desire to violently advertise a cause—terrorism.

Corrosion of the American Character

Poison Fruit

Homeland Security, the continuing War on Terrorism, and Big Media’s constant yammering about the terrorist angle during the 2000s have changed how Americans perceive ourselves, and the change isn’t good.

We have become cowardly. We have institutionalized seeing a terrorist behind every light pole. Fear is hamstringing our can-do attitude. Fear is closing our borders to new people and new ideas. In foreign relations, our fear is eroding our high moral ground out from under us.

American government has fallen into Kafkaesque regulations. The following exchange reported in the August 20, 2004, Washington Post between US Senator Edward Kennedy and an airline representative when he tried to purchase a ticket is truly theater of the absurd.

“I can’t sell you one.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Who can tell me?”

“I can’t tell you that, either.”

“What should I do now?”

“I can’t tell you.”

All this because a certain “T Kennedy” was being watched by someone in Homeland Security and the Senator was nicknamed Ted.

You’d think the airlines and the government would want to speedily clear up such a mistake by putting a prominent US Senator in touch with the decision maker. Not so, because doing so would reveal “sources and methods”, as the spy agencies always put it, and that would compromise the security of every man, woman, and child in our homeland, wouldn’t it? So not only cannot the baffled traveler know who is inconveniencing them and why, but by the same law, the decider can’t know the results of their decision. This leaves the official free not only from outside scrutiny, but even from self-correction.

Amazingly, this Blunder comes from the Clinton years, not post–9-11. As of 2011 the courts have generally refused to try various cases brought challenging the arrangement, and the executive and legislative branches have not modified it.

This is the death knell for Officer Friendly and “the police are on our side”, with citizens protecting our way of life by cooperating against criminals. The next step? “If the citizens won’t protect us, their government, we’ll have to set up an institution that does.” The generic term for that institution is “the secret police”.

This trend is cancerous!

Under the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act, for years the FBI issued letters that purported to be replacements for judicial search warrants, and further forbade the recipients from disclosing to anyone else—literally anyone—that they had received them. The fight against those has, fortunately, been more successful.

If by its fruits we shall know a good action from an evil one, then the War on Terror is deadly poison.

Getting beyond 9-11

To grow good American fruit again, we must move beyond thinking of 9-11 as something that needs action. As argued above:

This is a tall order, and it clearly won’t be easy. We are in a downward spiral of fear causing more fear, and this fear is becoming institutionalized. But Roosevelt’s Truism is in fact true: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It is not impossible, or naïve, to try breaking out from our vicious cycle of fear and reinstating a cycle of optimism.

When and if we succeed, America will be safer, more comfortable, and more like most American’s ideal of this country. Optimistic Americans are not just the kind we all like best and want to be, but the kind that will do the best things for the whole world.