Commentary

Google “Get a Life”

In The Mouse that Roared, a 1959 movie starring Peter Sellers, the tiny European duchy of Grand Fenwick declares war on the United States after U.S.–produced “Grand Enwick” wine threatens to undermine the Fenwick economy. A devastating loss, they hope, will bring millions of dollars in American largesse a la the Marshall Plan. Alas, the tiny duchy defeats the United States by accidentally capturing the Q–bomb, a prototype doomsday device that could destroy the world if triggered.

How like roaring mice are we treating the bumbling JFK plotters? According to officials, their plan of attack was “not technically feasible.” They had no explosives and they had not figured out how to get some. They would have been more dangerous walking the streets of Brooklyn in armor, with swords and shields.

But why should that stop us from being scared? They had performed physical surveillance, made video recordings of buildings and facilities, and located satellite photographs of JFK on the Internet! The latter, according to the criminal complaint filed against these men, was done using Google Earth, a delightful information product that provides satellite imagery of the country free to anyone with an Internet connection and a computer.

But in the hands of nincompoop terrorists, Google Earth is transmogrified. “Google as Terror Tool?” asked smokinggun.com, which published the complaint. “Google Earth — cool or dangerous?” intoned a blogger riffing on the story. And so the Google Earth–terror angle spins and swirls out across the 24–hour panic–alert system known as cable news: Grand Fenwick has the Q–bomb!

There are serious questions here, of course, but most people ask the wrong ones, such as “How do we prevent terrorists from using new technology against us?”

New technology is not a particularly important focus given the persistence of old technologies like explosives and razor blades in terrorism today. Terrorists will use whatever technology is available in whatever way they can. It’s all quite beside the point.

Antiterrorist efforts must focus on what is feasible, on what works to stop or minimize terror attacks, and mitigate damage. They should not focus on all things conceivable to do. Indeed, that is not “focus” at all.

It is part of the terrorism strategy to attack from within, using homegrown terrorists or attackers insinuated into a society. One response is to make suspects of everyone. We have seen plenty of that in the push for a national I.D. and in increased surveillance of law–abiding Americans’ communications and financial transactions. The privacy of law–abiding citizens is a casualty of this approach, of course. To limit terrorists’ access to information technology, likewise, we would have to limit everyone’s access to information technology. It would be a self–injurious misstep.

Better to concede the point: Terrorists can get the same access to payment systems, health care, shoe stores, knives, computers, photography equipment, and vitamin supplements as everyone else. Google Earth, too.

That doesn’t give them anything they don’t already have, but it does allow us to focus. In the JFK case, focus appears to have paid off. A plot was infiltrated and broken up, using time–tested policing and security methods, long before it was anywhere near fruition.

The JFK plot is another victory against people who would use the terrorism strategy against us. It helps to show that terrorists are not all–seeing, crafty, super geniuses. They’re closer to dumb. They tend not even to be tall.

Mayor Bloomberg is our best defender against these attackers from Grand Fenwick. “You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist,” he said when finally drawn into discussing the JFK boys’ piddling threat.

His sound effort to manage the psyche of his city brought a hail of derision from people invested in playing up the threat of terror, of course, and conflicted with many conservative pundits and his predecessor Rudy Giuliani. These “terror warriors” would unravel our society’s traditions with mass surveillance of law–abiding citizens. They would engage in the Sisyphian struggle to keep technology away from terrorists at the expense of freedom–loving Americans. They need to, quoting Bloomberg, “get a life.”

Terrorism is a strategy that weak attackers use to drive a stronger opponent into self–injurious missteps. Mayor Bloomberg refused to be the patsy to terrorism. He was right to ignore the mouse’s roar.

Jim Harper is director of information-policy studies at the Cato Institute.