Terrorizing Ourselves

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Powell speaks on 'Patterns of Global Terrorism'

On the surface, it looks like we're in deep trouble here. Over the past week alone, our government has said that our banks, apartment buildings and New York City landmarks could soon be terror targets. Further terror strikes are "inevitable," warns Vice President Dick Cheney. Americans should brace themselves for suicide bombings of the kind that have become commonplace in Israeli cities, warns FBI director Robert Mueller. And it's inevitable that, sooner or later, the terrorists will get access to weapons of mass destruction, according to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

But wait a minute. Are things really that bad? And if so, why are we only hearing about it now? Stung by criticism of its handling of pre-Sept. 11 counter-terrorism intelligence, the Bush administration's instinct to share vague terror threats with the public is understandable. But although this is designed to calm the public, it may well have the opposite effect — and that would be bad news for the administration and good news for al-Qaeda.

Everybody, everybody, please calm down

The implied government disclaimer attached to the threat warnings: Even if we do our level best on the intelligence and security front, it may not be enough to protect you. That's certainly true. Nothing is guaranteed to keep U.S. citizens safe from terror. Example: Israel has probably the most advanced and experienced counter-terrorism apparatus in the world; it knows exactly who its enemies are and their general location, it often even knows when they're coming, it foils a number of attempted terror strikes from week to week — and yet some suicide bombers get through.

The Bush administration may have decided that it's time to manage expectations, to steel the public to absorb more blows in the way that the Israelis have been steeled by years of terror attacks. It may also be hoping to head off a self-destructive Capitol Hill post-mortem on Sept. 11 by warning the nation and its legislators that the danger has not passed, and urging them to focus on new threats rather than past mistakes.

But it doesn't look good, or inspire confidence when the messages emanating from the government over the past week imply that very little has, in fact, been achieved in the war on terror. Americans could be forgiven for deducing that Washington is saying we're in as much, if not more danger than we were on the morning of September 11, and that there's not much the government can do to effectively protect us.

That's not true, of course; a significant amount has been done in the fight against al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is either dead or on the run; his organization's financial operation is in shambles, and Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for operations. But the administration's message, coming on the back of legislative probes and media questioning of the administration's handling of intelligence and security priorities before that attack, could actually function to undermine public confidence.

Helping spread terror

The vague warnings of the past week gnaw at public morale because they don't offer much help in preparation of defenses against attacks, but do spread panic — which, of course, is a large part of the terrorists' intention. From al-Qaeda's point of view, the warnings are the ultimate freebie. After all, terrorism is not warfare in the conventional sense, where the object is to project power in order to destroy an enemy's military capability. Terrorism is more in the nature of violence-as-propaganda, using spectacular attacks to terrorize an enemy's support base as well as to embolden and inspire the terrorists' own supporters. Al-Qaeda's modus operandi over the past four years has been to conduct one or two spectacular attacks a year (which may require them to attempt a few more, on the assumption that some will be foiled). Theirs is a war of messages in which mass murder is the ultimate propaganda tool — the message to Americans is that they will not be safe as long as their government maintains a presence in Muslim lands; and al-Qaeda is telling the Muslim world that despite America's power, it is not invulnerable and that Muslims can bend it to their will by rallying to bin Laden's 'jihad.'

Counter-terrorism experts fretted in 1998 that the Clinton administration's bombing of al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan had only served to boost bin Laden's standing by painting him as the man most hated and feared by America. The current wave of warnings certainly suggests to the wider world that bin-Laden continues to spook the U.S., and that's grist to his own propaganda mill.

Still, nobody can envy the Bush administration having to preside over national security in a time of terror. The second-guessing of the White House's pre-Sept. 11 performance reflects a need, on the part of a substantial part of the American public, to believe that their government can protect them from all threats. Congress bought into National Missile Defense, for example, precisely because of the allure, however misleading, of the idea of an umbrella under which Americans can live unmolested by foreign threats. But as appealing as the idea may be to the public, absolute security, as the Bushies now well know, is something no government can ever guarantee.