Overall, some fairly good things and some extraordinarily bad things have come out of this week’s attempts by the government to respond to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. In the “good things” category, let’s put President Bush’s steadfast and earnest addresses to the American people. He made many good points about the fact that it is indeed a way of life that was targeted by these terrorists, and not just human lives and property. The reason why terrorism is labeled as such is precisely because it seeks to strike fear and insecurity into the hearts of its victims, and thus change something about their behavior.
Also in the “good things” category we have Bush’s remarks on the strong fundamentals of the economy and the very temporary nature of the economic chaos inflicted by these attacks.
No doubt major airlines, and especially general aviation (the vast network of small planes and airports that constitute most of our national air traffic), have been hit very hard and will continue to suffer for a few months as confidence slowly rebuilds. Immediately in the “bad things” category however, we will have to include the $15 billion in free money Congress has thrown at the commercial airline industry (and not at general aviation, one could add). There is simply no good reason for that transfer. None of those companies are even near bankruptcy, and their condition is eminently temporary.
In other words, they will resume fleecing their customers and other normal operations within six months.
The economy, you see, functions on fundamentals such as productivity, savings, investment and production capacity in the long run, but in the short run is it very much affected by expectations, fluctuations in demand and so on. Bush was quick to point out that nothing the terrorists have done affects our long-term economic health or security. People initially panic, but as it becomes evident that nothing has fundamentally changed, stock prices, oil prices and the like soon move towards their long-term expected values. By firmly and convincingly reassuring the public, Bush helped ease the panic somewhat and encouraged a swift return to normal.
Firmly in the “bad things” category, however, we are going to have to add Bush’s decision to declare “war on terrorism.” This is ambiguous, because terrorism is an ill-defined term. Arguably, the United States itself engages in acts of terrorism every once in a while such as the specific targeting of civilian Serbs during our latest Balkan conflict. Declaring war on a way of fighting may seem crafty in a way, because it seeks to legitimize the violence exercised by states and de-legitimize that of other groups. Nobody can fight the U.S. with conventional weaponry, so by using its influence to try and prevent what defense analysts call asymmetric warfare, the U.S. government engages in discrediting the killing done by its enemies while maintaining its (obviously benevolent) monopoly on the use of intra-territorial and international violence. States also engage in terrorism, even on their own people, and there are many countries in the world where civil war or state-oppression has blurred the line between the terrorists and the government.
In general, though, it’s a bad idea to declare war on -isms, because you can’t kill ideas with a gun. The military is no more suited to fighting terrorism than the Polish cavalry was suited to charging the Wehrmacht’s Panzer divisions. It’s the wrong tool for the job. Also, in terms of pure justice, while it may be desirable to rid the world of terrorism, the matter at hand is really only to bring justice to the thousands of families who saw their loved ones perish on that fateful day. While measures certainly must be taken to prevent future acts like these, finding and punishing those responsible is the specific matter at hand. Arrests, trials, and punishment are the methods civilized countries use to try and bring about justice to the aggrieved.
Bush is about to plunge the US into a potentially endless war. Where there are no specific objectives and no easy exit strategies. This campaign is likely to consume many resources and antagonize a lot of people who have the expertise and means to inflict plenty of harm on us. And if that weren’t bad enough, by declaring war on terrorism, we have now created a commonality of interests out what were once disparate groups of violent extremists.
Finally, let’s return to the “good things” column and talk about the establishment of the cabinet position for homeland defense and intelligence coordination. This is where the combat to preserve our freedoms is headed.
We cannot rely on the military to fight asymmetric wars, and, given the vast power of our military, this is in fact the only kind of war we are likely to be facing any time soon. The military can turn over the pile of rubble that Afghanistan already is a few more times, but national security will increasingly depend on stealth, infiltration, special operations, and other forms of high tech trans-national surveillance.
In this respect, the future is a return to a Cold War-type scenario, except that the enemies are no longer state actors but covert non-governmental players who are more than willing to die for what they believe in. James Bond and Jack Ryan may yet have a few adventures left in them.