Path – Well, today we have proof that someone intentionally sent Anthrax to Microsoft. It would be a lie to say I am surprised. The terrorists are not trying to inflict maximum casualties at this point, but rather to attack the most visible symbols possible so that every American citizen is aware of the possibility that he or she could be next. And it was obvious that all of the energy diverted to such silliness as reinforced cockpit doors would naturally make non-aircraft targets much softer. As soon as we all start watching our mail more carefully, the terrorists will move on to other soft spots. No defensive measures we can take will make us safe; there are far too many soft spots in America’s infrastructure. Like all wars, the war that the terrorists declared on America is a war of attrition. They are betting that Americans will get worn down by each successive new thing that we are expected to worry about. And when we are finally worn down, we’ll pull out of the middle east and stop doing whatever it is that Osama righteously believes we shouldn’t be doing. Unfortunately, that would never work. A nation of 300 million people can’t be forced to negotiate with every single psychopath who figures out how to commit mass murder. If we appease Osama, we’ll just show that his is a profitable business and create a thousand more like him. There are more than 6 billion people on the planet; letting every one of us be a one-man government with capability of mass destruction is stupid (and an O(n^2) proplem). The idea that every single human being is good and will do the right thing if given the chance is not idealistic; it it stupid. Stanley Milgram proved that a good percentage of us would push the button if asked; and at least 2% of us would push the button on our own if given the chance. By my math, that’s about 120 million people who aren’t even close to qualifying as “innately good”.
Laws exist because that 2% exist, and because about 60% of us are willing to take orders from that 2%. Laws are not capable of preventing crimes. Laws exist simply to create a cost/benefit situation that makes the odds more favorable for the 2% guy to start a pizza parlor than to push the button. People like Osama have found that the costs and risks of terrorism are very low, and the payoff is very high. Unfortunately, the few tastes of success that the terrorists have had over the past 20 years will make them far more tolerant to failures for the next 50. Our war of attrition is to wear them down until all of the terrorist who remember that “the infidels used to respond to this” are gone, and the youngsters only remember terrorism as a fruitless and punishing waste of time undertaken by pathetically bitter and zealous old men.
We should expect incidents like the Anthrax to continue. And we should expect the terror to take new forms. The terrorists did not select their targets out of some stupid delusion that they could actually bring down the financial exchange system or halt the military by ruining a few buildings and killing a few thousand people. They know that they are not capable of inflicting damage of that scale on America. Their targets were chosen specifically because they are all highly-visible symbols of stability and security. All of these institutions are still just as stable and secure as before, but the terrorists have succeeded in getting Americans to consider the fact that none of us are completely safe. At this phase in the terrorist’s war, we are all supposed to be thinking “it could happen to me.” Of course, it’s not long before people wise up and start thinking “I’m not a highly-visible symbol of American stability and security, so I am safe.” By that point, the big megaphone of visibility provided by such institutions as DoD and NYSE will be no longer useful to the terrorists, and they will concentrate on driving home the point that even average Americans who never go near highly-visible targets are at risk. To use a marketing metaphor, the terrorists are using celebrity testimonials right now; the “neighbors next door” testimonials must follow.
It is worth mentioning that an outcome which sees America withdrawing from the middle east and appeasing the Islamists is not the only scenario that is a victory for them. Equally favorable to them would be the scenario where we provoke a West vs. Islam holy war. If every individual in America feels fear and tries to make it go away by withdrawing from the Middle East, the Islamists win. If the actions of the Western superpowers provoke riots and revolution in moderate Islamic states, and defensiveness from fundamentalist states; the Islamists win, too. It is like the game “heads I win, tails you lose.” The cost/benefit equation for Zawahiri and Bin Laden is extremely favorable. We have to balance the coin on its edge this time, and the only way to do that is by being patient.
The terrorists’ only hope of victory is to wear us down and provoke a panicked reaction, and fear is the only tool at their disposal. And so far, it’s been working for them. Until we do like Hammurabi and change the cost/benefit equation, we aren’t finished. And that’s going to take a long time. In the meantime, we have to assume they are going to keep pulling the lever.