John Kerry vs. The Terrorism Nuisance

The New York Times magazine interviewed John Kerry and the subject, oddly enough, turned towards terrorism and what he would do about it:

We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance.
As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.

This quote is rather telling, and there's a reason why the Bush/Cheney campaign has picked up on it. It speaks to denial of a problem. It's a pity that Wednesday's debate is unlikely to spend any significant time on it.

OpinionJournal's “Best of the Web” mailing picked up some comments on this. James Lileks says it the best where he says

But that's not the key phrase. This matters: We have to get back to the place we were.
But when we were there we were blind. When we were there we losing. When we were there we died. We have to get back to the place we were. We have to get back to 9/10? We have to get back to the place we were. So we can go through it all again? We have to get back to the place we were. And forget all we’ve learned and done? We have to get back to the place we were. No. I don’t want to go back there. Planes into towers. That changed the terms. I am remarkably disinterested in returning to a place where such things are unimaginable. Where our nighmares are their dreams.
We have to get back to the place we were.
No. We have to go the place where they are.

This is the idea that I have so much trouble getting across to people, although I've tried many ways. It is not enough to defend ourselves by securing the border. It is not enough to defend ourselves by putting more cops on the street. Cops deter some by their presence but for the most part they are responders. Securing against a threat and responding to a threat are indeed two legs of the secure response. But it is not enough.

There are several security strategies, as often commented upon by Bruce Schnier in respect to computer security: barriers, authentication, compartmentalization, trusted people, and counterattack. We need to press on all these fronts.

It's hard to get across to people that we cannot close the borders. We couldn't do that if we had ten times the military we have today. They are huge! We have strengthened those barriers, but not much.

It's hard to get across to people that we need to be able to identify people and their past history. The libertarian in me hates the idea of universal identification, but I'm more and more of the opinion that people need to know who everyone is and what their background is. My recent troubles with whom I affectionately term “The Loch Ness Contractor” and his past failed business ventures and his current so-to-be-legal trouble with me make that clear.

It's hard to get across to people that we do not need to centralize, and that it's better to have decentralized autonomous units doing the work we need to do. In fact, I like the idea that I live over ten miles from a major population center. I like the idea that I rely on satellite traffic for my Internet access (sometimes, boy it can be slow). I like the idea that if the head is knocked off of any organization to which I belong it can regrow and continue.

Trusted people. This concept does not get pushed as much as it should. Certain types of organizations and people don't like them. Look at the Federal Flight Deck Officer (FFDO) program that barely allows certified and tested pilots to carry guns in the cockpit after a year of arduous crap and volumes of rules. It's ridiculously overengineered and is only there because of massive public outcry. Annie Jascobsen's frequent columns on Air Marshals paint a similar picture. Frankly, I am a believer in “expert” driver's licenses and concealed carry permits because it gives the opportunity for people to learn more than some bare minimum and get duty, recognition and responsibility for it.

Finally, there's counterattack. It's not enough to minimize the impact of terrorist activity. We have to go after them and destroy their ability to continue and punish them for what we can prove. It's obvious to me. I don't care how big and strong your shield is. You will eventually fail while that gladiator is banging away on it. The saying goes that they only have to be right once and we have to be right every single time. It's a horrific equation.

Kerry is right in one respect. There will always be people tempted to commit terrorism. However, if we make it expensive, difficult, and likely to fail and make it clear that there is no safe haven in the world (once identified), there will be a lot fewer people willing to go through with it. If that's what John Kerry meant, he should have said it a great deal better. Saying “We have to get back to the place we were” does not speak of progress, it speaks of putting the genie back in the bottle.

Josh Poulson

Posted Tuesday, Oct 12 2004 08:41 AM

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