Sunday, February 19, 2006

Are We Helping Them Win?

Simon Jenkins of the London Times has a pretty good piece out today on the actual and perceived threats posed by terrorism, and how incompetent leadership can transform the latter into the former. He calls terror attacks "trivial" and points out that their most pernicious effects are diffused throughout the target nation's population by its news media and governing parties. The resulting suppressions of civil liberties and counterproductive warmongering play directly into the hands of our enemies, exposing our vaunted commitment to liberal values as a superficial nicety. The upshot for America and Britain 4 1/2 years after 9/11 is a net loss in both global prestige and their own citizen's faith in the strength of democracy.

Jenkins' analysis works wonderfully for the types of terrorism we've seen thus far, but it fails to address the possibility of dramatically more lethal attacks. If terrorists can acquire the potential to destroy the entire population of a major city through nuclear, chemical, biological, or other means, we should impose every measure at our disposal to stop them, provided they are properly and publicly vetted to ensure maximal fitness to the task at hand. Surely there must be some point at which the number of potential lost lives rises high enough to justify uncomfortable government action, and it is here that the question becomes quantitative: how can we meaningfully calibrate the number of potential dead to the severity of the countermeasure? I have no idea, but I wish our leaders would start engaging the issue seriously rather than using people's fears to advance preexisting agendas.