Commentary

Don’t Give Bin Laden Total Victory

By Ivan Eland
September 22, 2001
The monstrous and despicable attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center have given the terrorists two victories. We must prevent them from gaining a third.

The first victory — achieving mass casualties — was obtained with a nefarious, but deft, lightning strike that converted ordinary airliners into explosive, building-busting weapons. The second victory was achieved by inducing first panic, and then fear, into the American public through the publicity that the attacks received.

The first two victories were wrought by the terrorists’ own efforts but whether they achieve a third victory is up to us. As bad as the mass casualties and widespread fear were, the worst and most long lasting scar from the attacks could be an alteration of the American way of life. Politically, the United States is the freest nation on earth. Our citizens enjoy freedoms unmatched anywhere in the world. If the attacks result in the curtailment of American civil liberties in the name of increased security, the terrorists’ triumph will be complete.

Added airport security might be needed but the measures chosen should not be applied in a broad and draconian way to show that the U.S. government is “doing something” about the problem of terrorism. The government’s tendency to overdo its response to crises is well known. For example, after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway, Congress passed the draconian Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. That law reduced civil liberties but did not institute measures that would have prevented those types of attacks.

Instead, any new airport security provisions adopted should specifically help address the threat. The ban against sharp metal objects (i.e., knives) aboard aircraft is a good one. The bans on electronic ticketing and curbside check-in seem to be an example of government measures that have only a tangential relationship to the problem of hijacking. The apparent justification for them is that terrorists might opt for other means of attack if hijacking with knives is denied to them. If that is the case, then maybe we should prohibit all air travel.

Although the public’s desire for increased security is understandable, security measures should not be so onerous that air travel becomes a nightmare. If the speed limit on the highways were reduced to 5 miles per hour, many lives could be saved but our society would grind to a halt (or at least slow down dramatically). In anything we do in life, we take some risk. Despite the heat of the moment, terrorist attacks and airplane hijackings are still rare occurrences.

Terrorism is like water flowing in a stream — it follows the path of least resistance. Like moving water, which flows around rocks, logs and other obstacles, terrorists will change their tactics to move around defenses and attack the weakest point. Terrorism, perpetrated by loose associations of small shadowy groups, also is hard for intelligence agencies to detect and is therefore difficult to stop. We can only institute so many security measures to prevent terrorism before the burden to an open society is too great.

Therefore, in the long-term, when the dust settles after the predictable and justifiable military response to this heinous act, we should ask ourselves why the United States is the target of almost 50 percent of the world’s terrorism. That percentage is high for a nation that is half a world away from most of the world’s conflicts, has no ongoing civil war, and has no hostile neighbors. We should also ask ourselves whether increased security or intelligence gathering would trash the civil liberties that make the United States unique and great. That would be the greatest victory for Bin Laden and probably the most long lasting tragedy for America.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.