In Monday’s commentary, I argued that the inability of the American “authorities” to thwart the underwear bomber’s attack resulted from their inability to cope with the volume of information they already possessed, and that increasing the sweep of surveillance would just lead to even worse paralysis.
The problem for the surveillance state, as Holman Jenkins points out at the Wall Street Journal (hey, even a stopped clock’s right twice a day), is the very low volume of competent and sufficiently motivated terrorists relative to their potential recruiting pool. From Al Qaeda’s perspective, the problem is the high transaction costs of getting a sufficiently motivated extremist who’s also halfway competent, training him for the job, and getting him in the right place, compared to the wealth of high-value-added targets.
“If 19 terrorists (the number who carried out the 9/11 attacks) each blew himself up at one- or two-week intervals in a shopping mall or a movie theater, America likely would become a seething nation of paranoid shut-ins. That it hasn’t happened tells you something: Al Qaeda doesn’t have a ready supply of competent suicide bombers, domestic or imported, to carry off serious attacks.”
Equally significant is their choice of targets, Jenkins argues, given limited means. “So what if their hapless messengers only embarrass themselves and burn their legs? Al Qaeda can still count on the sizeable damage we will inflict on ourselves through an airport security apparatus that specializes in expensive political displays of barn-door closing that seldom have any real security payoff.”
They know how to play the U.S. national security state like a violin. In an earlier commentary, “Do You Have a Form 27B/6?”, I discussed the tendency of the U.S. government toward bureaucratic paralysis, even in arenas like Fourth Generation War where victory hinges on agility. Rather than taking advantage of networked communications technology to compete with Al Qaeda and the Taliban in decentralized decision-making by on-the-ground operatives, the U.S. military uses such technologies to increase the level of supervision of its people on the ground.
The same holds true in domestic counter-terrorism efforts. Given the limited number of terrorist volunteers, the Christmas bombing attempt was brilliant—especially brilliant, because a failure was almost as productive from Al Qaeda’s standpoint as a success would have been.
As Matt Yglesias has argued, every Al Qaeda attack via the civil aviation system—even the failed ones—leads to new security measures that imposed additional real costs on air travel and the sectors of the American economy dependent on it. Richard Reed tried to smuggle a bomb in his shoe, and everyone now has to take their shoes off before boarding. Someone was rumored to be planning an attack with liquid explosives, so now everyone’s searched for shampoo bottles. If Al Qaeda were really smart, they’d have somebody smuggle a bomb in their rectum; the resulting TSA policy of rectal searches for everybody would shut down the entire airline industry and throw the U.S. the rest of the way into a Great Depression. Every time the U.S. national security state reacts to another terrorist incident, you can almost hear Bin Laden and his cronies giggling in a cave somewhere: “Look! They’re doing it! The stupid schmucks are doing it! Hee hee hee!”
The irony of it, as many libertarian commentators have gleefully observed, is that the TSA “authorities” have once again adopted measures that make the system even less effective in preventing attacks. As I argued earlier, the main way to make American counter-insurgency efforts in Afghanistan more effective would be increased autonomy and discretion by those directly engaged on the ground. The U.S. military responds, instead, by using new high-tech communications technology to impose new controls on them and further restrict their autonomy. Similarly, the main thing that thwarted the Christmas underwear bomber was the agility and independent discretion of the passengers directly engaged “on the ground” (sorry).
As Yglesias has argued elsewhere, “the key point about identifying al-Qaeda operatives is that there are extremely few al-Qaeda operatives so (by Bayes’ theorem) any method you employ of identifying al-Qaeda operatives is going to mostly reveal false positives.” So (this is me talking) when your system for anticipating attacks upstream is virtually worthless, the “last mile” becomes monumentally important: having people downstream capable of recognizing and thwarting the attempt, and with the freedom to use their own discretion in stopping it, when it is actually made.
So what has the TSA done? It has further limited the autonomy and discretion of the passengers, and made it even less likely that they’ll be able to stop a future attempt at onboard terrorism. The underwear bomber was stopped by passengers who took the initiative to jump out of their seats and take the guy down. And as soon as the plane landed and the TSA’s gun-toting goons started their “incident review” process, they held the passengers prisoner and treated them as criminals—guilty until proven innocent. The passengers and pilots—the heroes who prevented a disaster—were forced to sit down for hours, denied permission to use the bathroom, while being relentlessly grilled by “the authorities.”
THAT ought to show Al Qaeda—if they ever stop laughing.