Commentary

More Security, But Are We Safer?

By Charles V. Peña
This article appeared in the Star-Ledger, October 21, 2004.

More than three years after 9/11, America is certainly a country with more physical security to defend against terrorism. For example, airline passengers are subject to greater inspection, including a requirement to remove their coats and routinely take off their shoes and belts to pass through security. In Washington, DC, the Capitol Hill area is now ringed by checkpoints and barricades and many streets are closed. And there is no street parking around the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings. New York’s police presence - including officers armed with fully automatic weapons - is much more visible. These and other security measures at least give the public the sense that they are better protected against a terrorist attack, but are we actually safer now than we were before 9/11?

The answer is not clear or easily discernible.

Airport and airplane security (including more secure cockpit doors) have certainly made it more difficult for terrorists to execute a repeat of 9/11 by hijacking airliners and flying them into buildings. But what about simply blowing up an airplane? The Transportation Security Agency now screens 100 percent of checked baggage for explosives, but cargo - which is routinely loaded on passenger aircraft - is not screened. And while passengers are checked for guns, knives, and other potentially lethal objects, they are not checked for hidden explosives - which is apparently how two Russian airliners were brought down by terrorists in August. Much of the focus of airport security has been on passengers, but less attention has been paid to security for airport operations, especially for those people with access to aircraft (e.g., ground crews, baggage handlers, etc.) Aircraft also remain vulnerable to the threat of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that are abundant around the world and known to be in the hands of terrorist groups.

We have made buildings more secure by erecting barricades, prohibiting parking and other access, deploying armed personnel, and instituting identity and vehicle checks. Although such measures certainly raise the threshold for a successful attack, they do not provide absolute protection against suicide terrorists. It’s probably safe to say that the so-called “green zone” in Baghdad is more heavily fortified than the average U.S. city. But that didn’t stop insurgents from detonating two bombs within seconds of each other, killing 10 people, including four Americans, just last week.

Although we can and should take comfort in the fact that America has not been attacked again, that does not necessarily mean that all of the actions we have taken have prevented at attack. It could simply be that al Qaeda has not chosen to attack. Unfortunately, we are at a loss to know the explanation. Intelligence is the Rosetta Stone that allows us to defend against the terrorist threat, but we can’t even read al Qaeda’s mail. As of March 2004, FBI director Robert Mueller noted that the bureau had only 24 Arabic speaking agents (out of more than 12,000 special agents). At the State Department, there are five linguists fluent enough to speak on Arab television (out of 9,000 Foreign Service and 6,500 civil service employees). And according to undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness David Chu, the defense department is having a “very difficult time…training and keeping on active duty sufficient numbers of linguists.” Perhaps the cruelest irony is that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has resulted in much needed Arabic translators being discharged for being gay.

Ultimately, it’s important to understand that being safer against the terrorist threat is not a function of being better at directly defending against attacks. As the Irish Republican Army stated after a failed attempt to kill British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984: “Remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” This is no less true for the United States defending against al Qaeda.

And while President Bush is right that we need to go after “the terrorists abroad so we do not have to face them here at home,” we must also understand that simply killing terrorists - however necessary - will not make us safer. To be sure, America must aggressively seek out the terrorists who would do us harm, specifically the al Qaeda terrorist network operating in 60 countries around the world. But al Qaeda is more than just an organization. It is a radical Islamist ideology with a life of its own - and it is infusing the Muslim world.

If we want to be safer, then we need to address the reasons why people choose to become terrorists and want to kill innocent Americans. This requires understanding that the growing tide of anti-American Muslim hatred - which is the basis for the radical Islamists to draw Muslims to their ranks - is fueled more by what we do, i.e., U.S. policies, than who we are. In other words - as the 9/11 Commission concluded and numerous polls conducted throughout the Islamic world show - they do not hate us for our freedoms, way of life, culture, accomplishments, or values.

Yet we still refuse to understand that point, much less to reevaluate our policy. Such refusal results from not wanting to be accused of blaming America for 9/11. That is understandable and certainly nothing justifies those terrorist attacks. But with more than one billion Muslims in the world, we cannot continue to ignore addressing the underlying reasons why so many of them have a growing hatred of the United States.

According to Shibley Telhami, a member of President Bush’s advisory group on public diplomacy, our so-called hearts and minds campaign to dissuade Muslims from becoming terrorists is “worse than failing. Failing means you tried and didn’t get better. But at this point, three years after September 11, you can say there wasn’t even much of an attempt, and today Arab and Muslim attitudes toward the U.S. and the degree of distrust of the U.S. are far worse than they were three years ago.” If that’s the case, we may be killing terrorists abroad and Americans may be better protected at home but we are actually less safe.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.