Thursday, July 5, 2007

Hobson's Choice

The recent attacks in Great Britain got me thinking about terrorism, specifically foreign terrorism. Here’s what I’m coming up with – I’d really like someone to point out my errors.

Assumption #1: In our society, constructing an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) with sufficient power to kill or maim large numbers of people is a trivially simple exercise.

Analysis: High-powered explosives are somewhat controlled. However, ammonia-based explosives are simple to make from easily-available materials. Gasoline, propane, and other fuels can also be used to develop explosive devices. Ample material to provide fragmentation effects can be found in any hardware store or junkyard. While mass purchases of some of these materials (e.g. ammonia-based fertilizer) might be controlled, a series of smaller purchases over a longer period of time could provide raw materials for an IED of any desired size.

Assumption #2: Emplacing such an IED is also a trivially simple exercise.

Analysis: So-called “important” targets are increasingly protected. Government buildings, large office buildings, airports, power plants, chemical facilities…the list of protected sites is seemingly endless, but the key word is “seemingly.” Schools, shopping centers, fairgrounds, parade routes, smaller office buildings, restaurants, bars – even just an area on the road that frequently suffers traffic jams – are all possible targets for a terrorist attack. There’s just no way to protect all of them.

Assumption #3: Foreign terrorists bear sufficient enmity against the United States that any form of engagement between our country and theirs is sufficient to encourage terrorist acts against us.

Analysis: This one is purely my opinion – but I think it is nonetheless correct. Our support for Israel, our financial and political involvement with several Middle Eastern countries, and the immense popularity and availability of our entertainment media all provide ample sources of outrage for Islamic fundamentalists. While other sources of foreign terrorism in the U.S. may exist, they are so much rarer that I don’t see a need to analyze the roots of their hatred for us.

Conclusion: Foreign terrorists will continue to attack our nation and our allies as long as any significant contact remains between our culture and theirs. While some attacks may be stopped through luck, good police work, or incompetent terrorists, others will inevitably succeed. This may someday be stopped by the foreign culture adopting more democratic and liberal principles – but that will not be soon, and is unlikely to come from our direct intervention.


1. Status Quo. We can accept some level of innocent casualties as a cost of doing business in the regions from which the terrorists come. While our intelligence and police forces will improve their capabilities, so will the terrorists. As long as our basic political structure is unchanged, our open society is vulnerable to attack. The question becomes – how many dead citizens are a fair price for supporting Israel, exporting TV shows, and importing oil? And how long are we willing to pay that price while we wait for them to turn away from violence?

2. Disengage. That entails cutting down our crude oil usage by about two thirds, to live off our own domestic production – if we continue to import any oil at all, the fungible nature of the product means that some of it will come from the Middle East. It means cutting off Israel from our support – and thus likely leading to the use of one or more nuclear bombs when Israel is forced to defend itself without the threat of allies coming to assist. It means cutting off all immigration, student visas, and even tourist visas from the area, lest some of them become contaminated by our culture and then return to spread that contamination. I suppose we can ask the countries involved to handle censoring TV, books, and movies, and provide our assistance in censoring the Internet. Politically and economically, I think this one is beyond any realistic expectation.

3. Retaliate. Announce to the world that any country or culture that attacks us with acts of terrorism will in turn be attacked. Violently, and without too much regard for the nature of the targets. I’m pretty sure that we could strike fear into the heart of the most rabid terrorist – if a ten to one casualty ratio isn’t enough, how about a hundred to one? Thousand to one? An air raid over Mecca and Medina? We have the physical means to do whatever it takes to get their attention. Only political will and morality prevent it.

Of course, such violence breeds anger and resentment, which breeds more terrorists. That could end up as a genocidal war.

Is there a flaw in my assumptions? My conclusion? A fourth response? I don’t like any of the answers I’ve come up with – I could really use another one. Anyone?