Monday, December 02, 2002
I'm kind of surprised it's taken until now for terrorists to seriously try to shoot down civilian aircraft with SAMs. The weapons are cheap, they are readily available, you kill lots and lots of people if you hit your target, you terrify huge numbers even if you don't, and the economic damage to the enemy's economy is potentially huge. For a country like Kenya or Indonesia, a couple of successful terrorist attacks on aircraft could end their tourist industry. That's a triple win from al Qaeda's perspective: you kill infidels, you destroy an industry you think is evil, and you destabilize the economy of a largely Muslim country, increasing the recruitment pool and making it a safer place to base operations.
And it's not clear what we can do to prevent such attacks. Airport security is irrelevant if the bad guys can shoot the plane out of the sky. Shut down the international arms trade? A bit late, I think, and unlikely to succeed. Working with local law enforcement is likely to be as effective as local law enforcement is. Remember, we're talking about 3rd world countries where the police's main occupations are extortion and racketeering. You could probably avoid 95% of attacks by simply not flying to dubious places. But that means massive economic damage to the countries and regions in question, and no small economic impact to us. What else? Is it time to equip civilian airlines with anti-missile defenses and countermeasures?
We're going to start asking these questions. There's two perspectives on the terror war, the ideological dimension and the security dimension. On the former, we're at war with a bunch of Nazi thugs who want to take over the Muslim world or at least kill as many infidels as they can while trying. To win the war: kill the thugs, cut off their sources of support, and dry up the swamps of repression and stagnation in which they breed. But on the second perspective - the one taken by Brink Lindsey in his "new barbarians" essays at NRO - what we're dealing with is a technological problem. The balance of power has tipped towards the barbarians. We need free movement of people and goods and ideas to sustain the wealth of our civilization. But that same movement, coupled with new, powerful weapons that can be wielded easily by individuals or small groups, makes our civilization extremely vulnerable to terror. Today it's al Qaeda, but tomorrow it could be Hizballah, or even a home-grown non-Islamic group - an anti-globalization version of the Weathermen, for example. From the security perspective, a good offense is an insufficient defense. And so, inevitably, we're going to be talking more and more about military defenses for civilian targets: airplanes, skyscrapers, etc. We're all going to get used to soldiers on our streets. And gunners outside our windows.