Terror on the Airwaves
Over the weekend, there was a security breach at JFK International Airport: a man, who fell off his jet ski, swam to shore, climbed an electric fence, and then walked across two runways to a terminal entrance. With little effort, he was able to defeat a new, state-of-the-art, $100 million Raytheon security system.
As the experts took to the airwaves demanding that heads roll, the more profound question remains unexamined: if a $100 million security can be so easily defeated, why haven’t fanatical terrorists done so since September 11, 2001?
The simplest explanation is that there are few — if any — active terrorists in the United States who are interested in targeting airports.
Of the high-profile terror cases that have targeted other types of locations, many have been cases of entrapment. In 2009, Hosam Maher Husein Smadi was arrested in Dallas; the other members of his “sleeper cell” were all Federal agents, who provided him with what he thought was a bomb. In 2010, Mohamed O. Mohamud was arrested in Portland; after being identified as “a person of interest,” he was approached by several undercover FBI agents, introduced to a fabricated bomb plot, given instructions for building a bomb, and given $3000 for living expenses. Also in 2010, a man with the alias Muhammad Hussain was arrested in Baltimore after meeting a paid informant, who led the man to an undercover FBI agent with a fake explosive. In 2006, the FBI broke up a cult in Miami, and the media packaged it as the Liberty City Seven Terror Plot; the group to which these men belonged was infiltrated by two paid FBI informants, who hired an additional infiltrator. The FBI also paid the rent for their meeting place and arrested the men when they tried to buy weapons from the FBI; their first two trials ended in a mistrial because the jury could not reach a verdict.
In 2004, Federal agents broke up the Detroit Sleeper Cell: four men went to Disney World, where they recorded some amusement rides; a fifth man, who had plead guilty to credit card fraud and identity theft, earned a reduced sentence by testifying against the other four men, two of whom were convicted. After these convictions were overturned, the Washington Post reported in 2005: “In its best light, the record would show that the prosecution committed a pattern of mistakes and oversights that deprived the defendants of discoverable evidence … and created a record filled with misleading inferences.” That many of these cases rely on paid informants underscores serious problems with the approach, which incentivizes the creation of the appearance of criminality: for example, one such FBI informant, Craig Monteilh, made $177,000 working for the FBI — tax free — in just over a year (the median household income in the US is just over $50,000). Without the encouragement of the FBI or paid informants, it seems unlikely that any of these people would have made any serious or successful attempts to disrupt the lives of Americans.
It might be argued that these people, nevertheless, harbored hostile sentiments toward the United States, and that we’re better off without them. Aside from the problems associated with such ends-justify-the-means thinking, however, is a more basic problem of priorities: reckless bankers and speculators harm Americans, but they walk free. Enron collapsed over a decade ago and the LIBOR affair has been unwinding for years: if entrapment tactics are legitimate, why don’t we see the FBI entrapping crooked accountants, or CEO’s engaged in fraudulent schemes, or bankers who launder drug money, or investors who gamble with the retirement accounts of hard-working Americans?
It might be argued that these so-called terrorists represent only the high-profile cases, and that, due to national security concerns and the need to protect “sources and methods,” we don’t hear about the many smaller cases that are successfully prosecuted. The plea of “state secrets,” however, is often little more than a justification used to avoid oversight: our enemies often already know they’re being targeted, and it is taxpaying Americans who are kept in the dark.
During World War II, the Germans and the Russians knew about the Manhattan project before Americans learned of it. Cuba knew we invaded their island, even when this information was kept from Americans; Fidel Castro even complained to the UN that he was being targeted. Cambodians knew they were being carpet-bombed even when this was being kept secret from the American citizens financing the bombing. Russia knew about the U2 spy plane well before Americans learned of it. Everybody involved in the Iran-Contra affair knew of US involvement well before Americans learned of it. The very nature of such “state secrets” justifications prevents us not only from knowing if any such smaller cases exist, but moreover prevents us from knowing whether they represent legitimate prosecutions, or cases of questionable conduct. If there are smaller cases, it would seem that they have been treated as the criminal matters that they are, rather than as instances of organized international terrorism.
In any event, there is other evidence that terrorism is not treated as the priority it is made out to be in the news: the PATRIOT ACT, for example, which was passed in the wake of the 911 attacks, provides expanded powers for police to conduct “sneak and peek” searches. Between 2006 and 2009, these PATRIOT ACT searches were used 100x more often in drug cases than in terror cases.
At present, it seems like a good possibility that the “War on Terror” is simply a substitute for the military and industrial subsidies put in place during the Cold War. Now, instead of a shadowy global network of communist infiltrators, we face a shadowy network of “al Qaeda franchises.” Just like McDonald’s or Starbucks, an al Qaeda “franchise” may be lurking around any city street corner.
If we are to extract any major lessons from the Cold War, it should include these: first, if, during the Cold War, the world had two powerful, ideologically-motivated governments each struggling for the global dominance of its ideology, and each was willing to destroy the entire planet with weapons of mass destruction for the sake of that struggle, it is a dubious “victory” for humanity that either side should come out on top. Second, we should remember that, despite the “duck and cover” drills and media propaganda about Soviet nuclear attack, the only radiation to which Americans were exposed during the Cold War came from the American government itself: atmospheric tests in the Southwest and over the Pacific Ocean, a cloud of strontium-90 floating over the US in the late 1950’s, soldiers used as guinea pigs, prison inmates and the mentally ill deliberately and secretly injected with radioactive material…
Guns are abundant in the United States, and easy to acquire; yet, there have been no terrorist shooting sprees. If a terrorist were willing to die for his or her cause, it would not be hard to take out several Americans too. Former “Freedom Fighters” in Afghanistan seem to have little difficulty constructing improvised explosive devices, but jihadis stateside seem wholly incapable of this feat when removed from an impoverished desert environment swarming with US military personnel. A terrorist could drive a car into a crowd, or sit in a boat by an airport with a high-powered rifle; if a terrorist wanted to disrupt American life, that terrorist could drive cross-country in the middle of the night attacking high-tension power lines without being caught. If any of these things were happening with the regularity that would justify something like the PATRIOT ACT or a new bureaucracy the size of the Department of Homeland Security, “state secrets” wouldn’t be able to keep it out of the news for very long. And yet, for over a decade now, we’ve remained under the same state of emergency declared by George W. Bush. President Obama has repeatedly extended this state of national emergency. Congress is required under the 1976 National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601-1651) to review presidential emergencies every six months; this oversight, however, does not appear to be much of a priority, and Congress has not been actively reviewing this emergency declaration.
In the US, terror is spread almost exclusively by the media. Most people traumatized on 911 were traumatized by watching TV in their kitchen or school classroom. Whereas terrorists have killed around 3000 Americans in the past decade, in the same period, automobiles have been responsible for some 400,000 deaths. The typical American is astronomically more likely to be killed or injured in a car accident than in a terrorist attack; yet, rather than treat effective mass transit as a life-saving national priority, politicians like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker make a show of turning down $1 billion in Federal funds for commuter rail.
In an important sense, we are our own worst enemy: Congress and the President have done more to disrupt the American Way of Life than any terrorist could have hoped to accomplish. As the media obsesses over dramatic fictions, as the federalization of local law enforcement continues, as local police procure military hardware, as civil liberties are swept aside, as drones and dirigibles with high-resolution cameras appear over major urban centers, keep in mind that it is not just Muslims that are targeted: during the recent G-20 summit in Toronto, police have been accused of profiling protestors with “black backpacks” and women with “hairy legs.” A Canadian police watchdog group calls these claims “substantiated.” Over 1,000 protesters were arrested — mostly without charge — and only around 40 were successfully prosecuted. Police profiling isn’t strictly a religious or an ethnic issue: control freaks don’t discriminate. If they don’t come to lock you up in person, be sure that they’ll come for your heart and your mind.