Monday, March 24, 2003

Social Insecurity

We must hope and pray that the war will be over quickly and that it will be successful.
The American experience has been that after war – at times, long after – there are apologies for the harm done to the innocent and judicial rulings reversing wartime rulings that sanctioned extra-constitutional laws and actions. This isn’t helpful to those who are long dead or even those who are alive and who suffered because a climate of fear dictated that harsh action be taken to protect against real and imagined enemies. Yet, apologies and the post-facto invalidation of questionable laws and acts are not meaningless. History and truth have their claims.

There is a fascinating dualism to America’s approach to war. We seem to be saying that it’s right to suspend certain liberties when there is danger and that it is also right to repudiate later on this suspension of liberty.

In war and events that precede it, governments and societies err on the side of caution because the calculus of war is always inexact and those who have the responsibility to lead and decide are obliged to take into account threats that may not come to pass. If calculations of risk are to a great extent suppositions in wartime when the enemy is identifiable, they are on even shakier ground when terrorism is viewed as the enemy. Fear, whether of unknown or phantom or real enemies, enlarges the safety zone carved out by leaders. They seek to protect citizens by curtailing the freedom of citizens.

The emotions generated by fear are further fueled by nationalism and patriotism, usually with the assistance of the media, although they too often have second thoughts when the crisis has passed. While it is right to support a nation’s leaders in wartime, because patriotism and nationalism are powerful forces those who rely on emotional elements to generate support need to show a measure of restraint. This is far easier said than accomplished.

Terrorism isn’t a mirage. It is clear and present and a danger and it demands emergency measures. Unfortunately, too much of our country’s approach to security relies on the promotion of insecurity. What we most need, as Israel has shown, is effective behind the scenes intelligence. Instead, we have duct-tape madness, an alert system that relies on false alarms and a continued lack of confidence in the CIA, FBI and the rest of the massive bureaucratic intelligence services that too often are more engaged in turf wars than in conducting war against terrorism. As I wrote after September 11, if the quality of Israel’s intelligence would be of the level that we have experienced in this country, G-D forbid Israel would have been destroyed by the enemies who surround it.

What is now happening is largely a response to the failure to anticipate and prevent September 11 –isn’t it incredible that this failure has yet to be investigated! - and also to ensure that should anything untoward happen, officials could claim that they warned us that there would be further acts of terrorism.

Apart from prudence and alertness, there is little that ordinary citizens can do to counteract enemies on our shores. We can best advance our nation’s well-being by going about our lives in a normal fashion, again in line with how Israelis have attempted to act in the face of dangers that dwarf anything confronting the U.S. The scare tactics employed by our Homeland Security people scare no one but us.

In the name of security, air travel has become an increasingly difficult ordeal, with indignities being justified as necessary to avert terrorist acts. In the process, the airline industry which is vital to the country’s economic well-being and security is near collapse. Hard-pressed state and local governments are being compelled to go deeper into debt, allegedly to protect the million – or perhaps many more – possible targets that might be attacked. We are expected to accept all that is occurring unquestioningly.

As always, there are those who profit from the insecurity business, including those who sell security equipment and services. The insurance industry is being aided and abetted by the climate of insecurity as it pulls off one of the great rip-offs that this country has seen by massively increasing rates in anticipation of payments that it will never make.

When the war against Iraq is won – and hopefully very soon – the U.S. will still be engaged in the war against Al Qaeda and other terrorists. Only that then the stakes may be higher and our goals more difficult to achieve because much of the world is against us and Islamic fundamentalism is apt to become more potent. There will be tough choices and great temptation to fight the war against terrorism primarily by inducing a sense of greater insecurity. The war against terrorism is almost certain to be prolonged and it will be a war without normal boundaries and without readily identifiable enemies. This imprecision is likely to breed additional fear, for the unknown is a potent breeding ground for fear.

Left free to roam in the psyche of a society, fear transforms rumor and supposition into assumed truth. Persons who are even loosely connected to suspected terrorists are transformed into co-conspirators and the assumption generally is that those who are suspected of terrorism are all guilty. It’s easy, even comforting, to yield to fear and there is some justification for allowing emotions to take over because the stakes are terribly high and the risks are great. Today’s terrorism is of a geographic scope that is unprecedented and because of the possibility of chemical and biological warfare, it is also of unprecedented danger.

In every war that America has fought, this country’s democratic principles have been its greatest strength. We must understand this, especially when we go to war against terrorism.