Sunday, April 18, 2004

In his recent press conference, Bush said:

One of the interesting things people ask me, now that we're asking questions, is, can you ever win the war on terror? Of course you can.

This seems obvious enough to our President. Its not so obvious to me.

There will always be terrorists. There will always be those who hate modernity and wish to reverse the couse of world history. Like Al Qaeda, these people may be driven primarily by what they perceive as a religious war against the infidels; like the ETA they may be driven by desire to achieve independence for their region; like Timothy McVeigh they may be driven by a paranoid fear of the encroaching power the government. Whatever. They will always be around. We can uproot one cell, destroy an organization, but new cells and new organizations will inevitably sprout up.

Its also going to get a lot easier with time to blow things up. Its pretty easy right now; there is little to stop a potential suicide bomber located within the US from walking into the middle of Times Square and setting off a bomb. As time goes on, new ways to build weapons will be found; new weapons will be invented.

There is no way to fight this. There will always be terrorist organizations plotting to inflict damage to the US; there will always be a war on terror.

The solution? Well, realizing the inevitability of terrorism is the first step. By repeatedly stating the war on terror will be won, the Bush administration is creating false expectations.

We should realize that the actual damage terrorists inflict is minimal. Tens of thousands of people die in car accidents in the US every year; the few thousand who died in the WTC is small potatoes. The economic damage is also pretty small; 9/11 led to the destruction of two buildings. Step outside the "9/11 was horrible" bubble for a second and ask yourself: can the destruction of two buildings be so damaging to the US?

The real damage the terrorists inflict is PR-based. We see the towers burn; we see them collapse; we replay the images thousands of times in our minds. It strikes fear into us. It changes our behavior: suddenly we don't want to fly on planes; we are anxious about trips to NYC; we come away feeling vulnerable and demoralized.

The solution: we have to accept terrorism as a simple fact of life. We have to think about it the way we think about car accidents: worrisome yet unavoidable. When terrorism is treated with cold detachment in the daily papers and when it has little effect on policies, the rationale for it will cease.

Will this ever happen?

Sort of.

I think that as terrorism gets more and more common, as the public gets more and more detached, and as the rationale for it eventually drops, terrorist acts will at some point begin decreasing in number. In turn, this will prompt the public to think of terrorism once again as something out of the ordinary; which will prompt to terrorists to redouble their efforts; which will return the public to detachment. My prediction: in the future terrorism and public detachment will end up oscillating around an uncomfortable equilibrium.


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