Anti-Terrorism: still missing the big picture

by Roger Bourke White, Jr., copyright September 2004


We are approaching the third anniversary of the 9-11 Disaster, and we, the American public, still don't understand how to cope with it. This annual review contains updates to my thinking on 9-11 based on what I've watched the Bush Administration, Big Media and the American public do in response to the 9-11 Disaster.

I've broken this discussion into topics:

Here we go....

Anti-Terrorism should be criminal, not military

It is clear now that the first and biggest mistake the Bush Administration made in response to the 9-11 Disaster was deciding that terrorism is a military problem, not a criminal problem. All sorts of problems have cascaded out of this choice, the biggest of which has become the Iraq War and following unrest.

But the Iraq War is only the current most visible problem, there are a lot of others, as well.

Why should this be a criminal problem, not a military problem?

Terrorism is a criminal problem because terrorists are first and foremost criminals. Consider the characteristics of terrorists:

Terrorists are an exceedingly small group of people who are hiding in a large population that is mostly against what they do, but is not inspired enough to stop them. This is a situation that calls for policemen, not soldiers. Policemen have enough firepower to stop terrorists once they are found -- terrorists don't succeed because police can't out shoot them, they succeed because they can't be found before they cause trouble.

This means that finding terrorists is the key to solving the terrorism problem, and since terrorists hide in civilian populations, this means that getting good intelligence on civilian populations is the most critical step.

What produces the best intelligence on civilian population? That's easy: other civilians! Who hasn't been watched by a neighbor? Terrorism can happen when a neighbor watches, and doesn't feel motivated to report what he or she sees. Palestine is a hot-bed of terrorism because the neighbors of terrorists feel little motivation to report their suspicions to a police force that will take action. So, the first and best cure for terrorism is changing the perception of neighborhoods concerning the appropriateness of terrorists. The more neighbors think terrorists are such a bad idea that they are worth reporting, the less terrorism there is.

If a neighborhood can't be "cured" enough to report terrorists, the next best line of defense is the police force and lawyers. Police are very much involved "gathering intelligence" on the day-to-day activities of neighborhoods, and are expected to be doing so. To have police add anti-terrorism to their normal anti-criminal activities is very easy and very cost effective because it involves almost no change in their activities. Remember: terrorists are first and foremost criminals, just like drug dealers. If police are trying to find drug dealers, then they can add "and terrorists", almost as easily as writing the phrase "and terrorists". Not much more than that is needed.

There is another very important reason to keep anti-terror a neighborhood and police activity. It supports Rule of Law, and Rule of Law is at the foundation of good government, in general. More on this later.

Dealing with the novelty

What makes terrorists different than other criminals is the novelty of their acts. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were the first people to use a truck bomb on a US building in the American Heartland. The 9-11 people were the first people to suicide hijack an airplane. This novelty element is very important. It is important because once it has happened once, the average person knows what to look for to keep it from happening again, and that particular kind of terrorist act can then be stopped from happening again simply by being more vigilant about the right signs of activity -- few, if any, additional precautions are needed. Just as important, if elaborate precautions are taken to keep it from happening, the elaborate precautions are expensive and usually don't work.

The way to deal with a novel terrorist attack is to recognize that it is novel, and then get back to business as usual.

In sum, the best way to fight terrorism is to build communities that won't support terrorism. This means stable and prosperous communities which feel they have a stake in their own well-being and strong faith in the justness of their government. The usual, but not only way, of establishing that faith is Rule of Law.

What is needed to combat terrorism is more belief on the part of the community that what terrorists are doing is wrong, and that community members should do something about it when they see terrorist acts being prepared.

Note: that this form of anti-terrorism is identical to anti-criminalism, which is a very good thing. It means that every effort to fight crime becomes an effort to fight terrorism.

The problems with using soldiers to fight terrorists

Soldiers do not fight terrorists well for two basic reasons: first, soldiers are designed to fight other soldiers (terrorists are criminals, not soldiers), and second, the military will use military intelligence to find terrorists, not civilian intelligence.

The military is designed to confront other militaries. Using the military against terrorists is using the wrong tool, and, ironically, it can sow the seeds for more terrorism.

For example, in Iraq the military intervention is producing large numbers of guerrillas where there were formerly small numbers of terrorists (perhaps vanishingly small numbers). An armed insurrection is something the military can deal with effectively, but it's not really the road the US wanted Iraq going down when it started this war. Using the military to find terrorists in Iraq has changed the mission in Iraq from stopping terrorism to putting down insurrectionists. We are now fighting alligators instead of draining swamps.

The heart of this problem is that military intelligence is very limited in quantity compared to civilian intelligence. Military intelligence is designed to find out things about other militaries: bases, supply lines and depots, troop movements and troop capabilities. Other militaries will have these things in fairly distinct organizations and places -- military units operating out of military bases -- so the amount of resource needed to keep track of another nation's military resources is small.

Terrorists are a vanishingly small in number compared to another nation's military, and hiding in a huge sea of civilians, not in distinct, isolated places. They don't need much infrastructure, so terrorist bases are also vanishingly small when compared to military bases. What this means is that having military intelligence be the backbone of researching and discovering terrorist groups is using the wrong tool for the task. The right group is, again, police forces and criminal lawyers. These are the people who are well set up to find and deal with dangerous malcontents in a sea of benign civilians.

Another problem that confronts all intelligence gathering is separating fact from fantasy. The number of people who have fantasized terrorist acts is staggering compared to the number of terrorist acts actually committed. One of the tasks that is part and parcel of being a police force is distinguishing harmless cranks in a community from truly dangerous people. This kind of distinguishing is much harder for military intelligence people do to at the neighborhood level because it takes "knowing the territory."

Since the military intelligence tool isn't the right one for dealing with terrorists, some really bad "fitting the tool to the task" happens. Since the military can't easily use civilians to find terrorists, it falls back on using captured or betrayed terrorists to find other terrorists -- interrogation. When community research is used, instead of being a "knocking on doors and asking people"- kind of activity, it tends to be a "kicking in doors and rounding up people"- kind of activity. This is really bad because this kind of rough and ready anti-terrorism is counter to Rule of Law, and undermines support for Rule of Law very quickly. A community that goes through a couple of these anti-terrorist sweeps, will lose all faith in supporting normal police activity as a form of anti-terrorism, and, ironically, such neighborhoods are transformed into terrorist hotbeds.

So, when military intelligence is used to find terrorists, it quickly alienates neighborhood members and police forces from both anti-terrorism and anti-criminal efforts. Soon they will give only grudging help to keeping a community orderly, and a vicious cycle begins:

Another element in the vicious cycle is that military intelligence interrogations are usually conducted in secret -- once again, outside the bounds of Rule of Law. This means there is little oversight of these interrogating activities and abuses of the sort depicted by the Abu Ghraib Prison Photos are an inevitable consequence. The interrogations may be conducted in secret, but the rumors of their abusiveness will be no secret, and all the neighbors of those being interrogated see themselves as even further outside of the Rule of Law.

So after a short while, the neighborhoods won't help the military intelligence people much, and this "scalpel in the War on Terror" becomes dull, indeed. Who loses the most in this Use Military Intelligence to find Terrorists vicious cycle? Rule of Law and the goal of a peaceful, orderly community lose most. Who wins the most? The terrorists win: any community touched by a run-in with military intelligence looking for terrorists becomes both a criminal and a terrorist haven.

Conclusion: Support your local policeman, not your local soldier

To build communities that reject terrorism, you must build communities that support Rule of Law. To support anti-terrorism, communities must feel that terrorism is inherently a bad idea, and the members must feel that reporting their suspicions of terrorist activities will improve their lives, not make them worse by bringing down door-breaking-down soldiers on the community.

Big Media and Big Government are feeding Big Terrorism because it's Big Theater

Big Media loves a good story. And not just one story, it likes a steady stream of good stories. It is voracious in it's appetite for sound bites. Because of this appetite for interesting news, Big Media has been playing up the terrorist angle in news for the last three years.

This has been good for news, but it has also been good for Big Terrorism. Terrorists are advertising a cause, and, just as carefully as business people, they look for value from their advertising dollar. Ever since Anti-terrorism has become Big News, the terrorists have been getting huge returns from their "advertising" efforts. And this has, in turn, encouraged them to put more resource in advertising in Big Media. Terrorism is the booming entertainment segment of the 21st century.

What can be done to break this vicious circle of terrorists making news stories which promotes more terrorist news stories?

First, some things have to be recognized:

The Terrorist-slant discount

Big Media needs to break itself of it's habit of sensationalizing terrorism. The best way to break a habit is to introduce some negative feedback. I propose that Big Media do this through self regulation. I suggest Big Media declare that promoting terrorism is now in poor taste, and support that decision with a "terrorist discount" program. The way the program would work is this: news and programs are monitored for their "terrorist-related content" and programs which have terrorist-related content are counted as part of the "terror percentage" of that outlet. Each month the terror percentage of a media outlet is calculated (terrorist-related material as a percent of total material), and when the percentage is high enough, a discount is given back to advertisers. The higher the terror percentage is for a month, the larger the discount. This discount is given on top of whatever other discounts are negotiated by advertisers.

The advantages of this approach are:

In summary, Big Media must recognize and take responsibility for it's role in promoting terrorism. There wouldn't be any terrorism if there wasn't extensive media coverage of terrorist acts. Big Media needs to change its ethics and reporting styles so that it reports terrorist events without promoting the terrorism itself. As soon as it does this, terrorists will see no gain in promoting their cause with an act of terrorism, and Big Terrorism will very quickly go away. (It will, however, be replaced by something else that is an obnoxious way of advertising because such is the nature of some people who fanatically support causes.)

The key Anti-Terrorist tactic that the government and the community are not employing is Business as Usual

The first and foremost anti-terrorist tactic that the Bush Administration and the American community should be supporting is Business As Usual. As I have stated many times, terrorism is a form of advertising, which means it's purpose is to change the actions of the community. When the Bush Administration changed the way billions of federal dollars were spent, and encouraged local governments to change how more billions of dollars were spent, these people were not "unbowed by terrorists", they succumbed hook-line-and-sinker to the terrorism message. When Big Media whips up anti-terrorist frenzy by daily reporting of stories with terrorist angles and those stories cause even more change in how even more billions of dollars are spent, the terrorists are winning even bigger, and they are even more strongly encouraged to keep allocating more and more of their resources to terrorist acts.

The way to break this cycle is to ignore terrorism, to conduct business as usual in spite of terrorist acts. Terrorist acts should be reported by the media, but not in a way that advertises them. Homeland Security is a symbol of what the government should not be doing. What the government should be doing instead is fighting crime, poverty and those things which cause people to not buy into the system (injustice). General forms of crime, not terrorism, should be the justification for security-improving expenditures.

The more the community feels that Rule of Law applies to each member, and the more the community feels that each member benefits from Rule of Law, the more active the community will be about defending itself from crime, and it's little subset, terrorism. For this reason we should be working on strengthening Rule of Law and working on eliminating all those "exceptions" to Rule of Law that have accumulated through the years to deal with various crises-de-jour, such as Prohibition, War on Drugs and War on Terrorism.

The reason we need to be working on getting these exceptions out of our legal system is that each exception isolates part of the community, and that isolation keeps those community members from feeling like they are benefiting from Rule of Law. A person who enjoys doing drugs is going to feel isolated from the Rule of Law because of the War on Drugs. This person is not going to be enthusiastic about helping police fight terrorism. This problem is not ancient history. Nowadays those measures which put immigrants outside the rule of law are at cross-purposes with anti-terrorism.

The Curse of the Patronizing Habit: "I'll be pilloried if something happens on my watch."

One of the deadliest acts to Rule of Law is having a TV reporter stick a microphone in the face of a government official at the scene of some disaster and ask, "What are you doing to prevent this from happening again?"

This is deadly because it makes the politician feel like he or she has to do something, when, in fact, the best thing that politician could do is often... nothing! Sometimes things just happen. And sometimes, things should just be allowed to happen.

NASA not using the Space Shuttle to fix the Hubble is an example of a time when something should just be allowed to happen. Launching the Space Shuttle is a risky business. That can't be changed, so it should just be allowed. NASA is being too patronizing, and the American community is supporting that over-patronizing nature because they won't tell the reporter not to ask that question at the scene of a disaster. They won't say to the news networks, "That question is not in good taste at this time."

This curse of being over patronizing is made worse by the current American tort (legal) system. On my trips to New Zealand, I have seen how a society operates where people take more responsibility for their own actions, and there is big difference. In New Zealand I've seen people rappelling down the sides of hotels in the centers of big cities. We can't do this in America because the hotels can't count on the courts deciding that a person who rappels down the side of their building is fully responsible for their own actions. This is a sad loss for America.

Anti-Terrorism is redefining what it means to be American, and the new definition ain't good

Homeland Security, the Bush Administration's War on Terrorism, and Big Media's constant yammering about the terrorist angle in the daily news are changing America. They are changing how we perceive ourselves, and the change isn't good.

We are becoming cowardly. We are institutionalizing seeing a terrorist behind every bush.

Fear is replacing the "can do" attitude. Fear is closing our borders to new people and new ideas. Fear is replacing "high moral ground" in our foreign relations.

American government is becoming a fertile ground for Kafkisque-style regulations. An example being the trouble Senator Edward Kennedy has when he tries to fly (article in the Washington Post on 20 August 04):

He goes to purchase a ticket, the airline representative says, "I can't sell you one."

"Why not?" asks the Senator.

"I can't tell you that." says the airline person.

"Who can tell me?"

"I can't tell you that, either."

"What should I do now?"

"I can't tell you."

The Senator has the misfortune to have a name similar to the name of someone being watched by someone in Homeland Security, so that other someone is being kept off public transportation. You would think the airlines and the government would want to clear up a mistake such as this one, and certainly the quickest way to clear it up would be to contact the person who made the decision. But, the thinking goes, if Homeland Security revealed who has made this decision, that would reveal the sources used for making the decision, and that would compromise Homeland Security. So in the name of Anti-terrorism, the public has to live with a decision made by a person who will never know the harmful results of the decisions he or she makes. And, by deliberate law, this deciding person can't know the results.

Amazingly, this kind of thinking has been condoned by the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government. (there have been case brought to various courts, and the courts have refused to try them.)

Amazingly, this thinking comes from the Clinton years, not the post 9-11 years.

Amazingly, no one in government or the media seems to recognize that this puts the decision maker outside of any good accountability loop, and we should expect heaps of abuses as a result. This accountability problem is identical with that which produced the Prison Abuse Photos.

How can we call this Kafkisque-style of governing good government? This is an example of how fighting terrorism with a War of on Terrorism is poisoning the American way of thinking. It is absolutely death on Rule of Law, and it is absolutely death on the concept of citizens protecting their own way of life by cooperating closely with police to solve criminal problems. It is a huge step towards developing a secret police system, because the next step in government logic is, "If the citizens won't protect their government -- us -- we will set up an institution which does."

It is death on the concept of Informed Democracy, which is at the heart of our governing system. How can voters make good choices about government when the government conceals relevant information from voters?

Yet another problem with secret rules, is: how am I, a citizen, supposed to tell a "real" secret rule from a "false" secret rule that some smooth-talking con-artist has fabricated to steal something from me? If I know that my government has secret rules, and someone walks up; flashes and official-looking ID and says, "I want something from you, and there's a secret rule that says you have to give it to me." what am I, a citizen, supposed to do? Who do I check with to find out if this person is a con-artist or a real government agent? If the person is a real government agent, how do I check if they are citing a real secret law? I can spell A-B-U-S-E!

Having secret rules that the public has to obey is a bad, bad idea, any way you slice it.

None of these fruits of conducting a War on Terror is good; they are deadly poison. To have good fruits we must move beyond thinking of 9-11 as something that needs action.

America needs to get beyond 9-11

America needs to get beyond 9-11. We need to get back to business as usual.

We need to start seeing 9-11 as a one-of-a-kind incident, and not the basis for a new way of thinking.

This is a lot that we need to do, and it clearly won't be easy. But when we succeed America will be a safer place, a more comfortable place, and a place more like our American Ideal.

-- The End --