Over the weekend authorities arrested four men for plotting to cause a significant explosion at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. On Monday, the congressional recess will end, and members of Congress will be back in Washington. Predictably, some of them will express some stupid conclusions about what the JFK incident means. Here is a short list of what we’re bound to hear.
“We need to throw more money at the problem.” One of the innovations in this alleged plot is that the terrorists were going to go after the airport instead of the airplanes. Specifically, they intended to attack the pipelines that ferry fuel to one of the world’s busiest airports. Without a doubt, some in Congress will want to hold hearings on pipeline safety and then create another cash-cow homeland-security grant to upgrade security.
The “danger du jour” approach to protecting the homeland could not be more wrongheaded. After the Madrid and London bombings, Congress wanted to throw billions more toward homeland-security grants. This penchant for chasing the latest threat makes no sense. The United States is a vast and populous nation with an infinite number of vulnerabilities. If Congress wants to spend billions of dollars to eliminate one of these vulnerabilities, then there will be infinity minus one.
The most effective way to counter terrorism is to find the terrorists before they strike. Since the attacks of 9/11, U.S. law enforcement has broken up at least 16 potential terrorist plots inside country, counting this latest one. Continued emphasis on law enforcement and intelligence that uncover and interdict schemes before they can be carried out is the cost-effective way to stop terrorist attacks.
“Look for needles in haystacks.” Terrorists are a miniscule percentage of any group. Despite that fact, some members of Congress persist in thinking that fighting terrorism is about excluding, persecuting, or scrutinizing one group of people or another. They have no problem with defaming religions; keeping foreign students from coming here to study; trying to kill the visa-waiver program that allows grandmas to attend their grandchildren’s weddings; and inspecting every package shipped to America. Their way of keeping us safe hamstrings the economy and makes America hated around the world, while offering scant prospect of catching a terrorist.
Screening, profiling, and banning vast numbers of people and goods is a grotesquely inefficient to way to find terrorists, spending a lot of time and energy on the 99 percent of the population that is not the problem. The way to find terrorists is to go looking for them, not to stand around checking passports. That means recruiting informants, wiretapping the conversations of unsavory people, reading their mail, and rifling through their desks. These are all things that can be done legally. Congress should let law-enforcement agencies do their job, stop trying to undermine the Patriot Act and other counterterrorism tools, and quit wasting taxpayer money on measures that don’t make us any safer.
“Stop calling it a war.” There are still members of Congress who persist in denying that America is at war. They dismiss the notion that we should, or even could, be at war with terrorists. Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy, they say; it is not a traditional war with states, armies, and objectives. Dealing with terrorists, they insist, is a matter for law enforcement, diplomats, and social workers. These are irrelevant objections that have nothing to do with the key characteristic that defines a war: namely, a competition between two determined foes for a political end that employs violence or the threat of violence. It does not matter that there is no direct link between the plots to bomb JFK, Bali, London, Madrid, Iraq, and the Twin Towers. All these events were perpetrated by men with common cause to silence the voices of freedom and justice.
The most important lesson from these arrests is rather straightforward. First and most important, let’s acknowledge that there is a war on terror — one there is no hiding from. There are people out there who are trying to kill us and destroy our way of life, and we are trying to stop them. That’s a war. And it’s going to be a long war. While much has done much to frustrate the designs of the terrorists, it’s going to take more time to destroy the capacity of these groups to turn terrorism into a transnational, cooperative enterprise.
There is only one thing to say after the JFK plot: America must continue with more of the same, hunting down those that want to kill us and demonstrating the will to prevail in the long war. That is the only lesson worth taking from this incident.