When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was found sitting on an airliner bound for Detroit Christmas Day 2009 with explosives in his underwear, much was said about dots and how the government had failed to connect them, as it had before the 9-11 attacks. President Obama said it was unacceptable and vowed to make sure it did not happen again.
The US government did know some things about the “underwear bomber” before he was arrested. Perhaps it knew enough that it should have been able to stop him from getting on the plane. But the fact is that the government will not always know that much or be able to connect the various pieces of what it knows so that it can stop every terrorist attack.
So one thing the President might have said was: “We will do our best to stop terrorist attacks upon the United States and its people, but we will not be able to stop every attempt.” Another thing he might have said was: “But don’t worry. There is about as much chance that you will die in a terrorist attack as that you will die in a tornado, and even less chance of dying from terrorism than from a lightning strike.” Or he could have warned Americans about the dangers of their long-running romance with automobiles: driving to the store is by far more likely than terrorism to kill an American. Instead, the President with utmost gravity vowed to redouble efforts to protect Americans from terrorism and then proceeded to increase the intrusiveness of security measures at airports.
If so many other things are more dangerous than terrorism, why do we pay so much attention to it? Being social animals, perhaps humans have come to be particularly attentive to threats posed by other humans. We may well feel that there is nothing we can do about the weather (tornados and lightning) and that if we die through activities we freely choose (driving), that’s okay. But malevolent human beings, that’s something else. Isn’t protection from such people, foreign and domestic, our motive for establishing government in the first place?
All this may be so, but why can’t the government level with us about its inability to completely guarantee our safety from terrorism, especially if the risk is so small? If you ask those who work for high-ranking officials, they are inclined to say that any such recognition of the limits of governmental power would be political suicide. “The American people demand to be protected,” they’ll say. At meetings, it is not uncommon to hear officials or experts say that if this or that terrorist scenario actually unfolded, Americans would be hunkering down, almost cowering. It would be so bad, they’d stop shopping! It is not uncommon to hear the experts refer to some extended string of terrorist attacks and say that the society in which they occurred was “paralyzed.” In fact, there was no paralysis in any of the cases they refer to. More important, these attitudes of officials and experts surely underestimate the American people.
At this point in the discussion, terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons usually come up. Some experts say there is a 50 percent chance of such an attack occurring over the next ten years or so, even though the technical challenges facing terrorists who would use CRBN weapons are formidable. Let’s accept for the moment that the most difficult kind of terrorist attack will turn out to be more likely in the future than the easiest kind of attack has proven to be in the past. How should we respond?
First, if the most dangerous threat is CBRN materials, then we should focus on stopping the spread and the increasing availability of the materials that are necessary to carry out a CBRN attack. Material for a nuclear bomb does not exist in nature; it must be produced, and that is a difficult business. Chemical weapons are easier to produce but don’t kill effectively. Biological weapons kill effectively but are difficult to produce. We are likely to be better able to succeed at limiting the spread of highly destructive weapons than at stopping all terrorist attacks. Focusing on counter-proliferation would be a reorientation of the policy and strategy of the US government and appropriately something in which the US government should take the lead, aided by state and local government and our allies.
As with other terrorist attacks, however, we should acknowledge that there is no way to guarantee that a CBRN attack won’t occur. All the more reason for government to see the American people and, above all, for the people to see themselves not as protected subjects but as citizens participating in the risks and rewards of citizenship.
A nation of active, participating citizens, who take responsibility for themselves and their families and neighbors, would increase the resilience of American society should CBRN attacks occur, as well as in the aftermath of natural disasters, for that matter. For example, many churches and church organizations responded to Hurricane Katrina by providing food, shelter and other care. These efforts and the similar work of various civic organizations should be part of the formal planning for all natural and man-made emergencies.
Such citizen efforts should not be restricted to dealing with the consequences of terrorist attacks, however. Citizens might also help prevent such attacks. To some extent, of course, this is already happening. Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, was subdued by his fellow passengers, as was Richard Reid, the shoe bomber before him. The fizzling, smoking bomb ignited by Faisal Shahzad in Times Square last May was spotted by vendors working nearby. Reporting by vigilant citizens has led to the police breaking up other plots. “If you see something, say something” is good advice that we can all follow.
Recently, the Los Angeles Police Department took citizen involvement a step further. It is common now for police to speak of community policing. This typically means having law enforcement involved with the community, rather than having the community involved in law enforcement. The LAPD’s program, called iWATCH, takes the latter approach. It aims to educate citizens on what to look for and to involve them actively in preventing terrorism. As the LAPD’s chief said, “An alert community can act as a deterrent to terrorism, and a trained public can feel more in control of their lives, if they partner with law enforcement in the fight against terrorism.” The Major Cities [Police] Chiefs Association, representing the chiefs of the sixty-three largest police departments in the US and Canada, endorsed iWATCH in 2009. We should hope that these efforts to encourage citizen vigilance and involvement continue and expand.
Any talk of citizen participation in preventing attacks gives rise to concerns about vigilantism, not without reason. For example, the initiatives taken by volunteers patrolling the southwest border may not only cause conflict with the professionals charged with border security; they could become violent, leading to tragedy. During World War I, in fact, when the government did encourage citizens to be involved in preserving American security, gross injustices occurred, including the lynching of a German-American suspected of spying, who was innocent and reportedly asked to be buried in the American flag before the mob killed him. But President Wilson’s inflammatory rhetoric was in part to blame for the anti-German sentiment of those years. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt, who had lived through the anti-German hysteria of World War I as a government official, took steps to prevent it recurring (although notoriously he did nothing to resist popular agitation against Japanese-Americans). Similarly, President Bush acted to limit anti-Muslim sentiment after 9-11. Both increased government power and its alternative—increased citizen vigilance—might lead to abuses, but only the latter will increase the capacities and the freedom of American citizens.
Beyond working to prevent terrorist attacks and deal with their consequences, there is other work that citizens should undertake. Throughout the Cold War, the US government took steps to ensure that the constitutional succession of legitimate authority in the US government would survive a cataclysmic attack and that as this authority was preserved, the government would continue to function. Such preparation for the continuity of government continues.
This is a vital task, but even more vital is ensuring the continuity of the principles and spirit of American democracy. Unlike an attack by the Soviet Union that would have destroyed the United States, a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) is likely to leave much of the physical United States untouched. But what of our political world? Our typical response every time there is an attack is to place more restrictions on Americans. What would we do in the aftermath of a WMD attack? How much of our freedom will we be willing to surrender to deal with the consequences of such an attack and to prevent another? Would free government survive?
The decentralized, federal nature of our political institutions will help preserve our political way of life. We have no one centralized political point whose failure dooms us, and distance from an attack may promote political as well as physical recovery. But we will reap the benefit of this advantage only to the degree that the American people, the ultimate sovereign power in the United States, are prepared. Unlike the legal and bureaucratic preservation of authority in the federal government, this preparation is not best left to government alone. Perhaps the best preparation is active involvement in civic and political life and a willingness to discuss this possibility among citizens and those they choose to represent them at all levels of political life. The same civic organizations that should play a role in dealing with the physical aftermath of an attack should play a role now in preparing for the political aftermath. This would be a boon to our political well-being, whether the attack ever comes or not.
David Tucker serves on the Ashbrook Board and teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California. He is author of Skirmishes at the Edge of Empire, The United States and
International Terrorism (Praeger, 1997) and United States Special
Operations Forces, co-written with Christopher Lamb, (Columbia
University Press, 2007). The views expressed here are entirely his own.