The Book Club

An Ounce of Prevention

Dear Peter,

“This topic is not for Tina Brown’s new magazine”? Damn. Bet she’d pay better than … well, never mind. Tinky Winky may or may not be gay, but I think we all know why the scholarly one is called Po. Moving on to more pleasant subjects, these anthrax scares bother me too, but I’m afraid I don’t have any magic bag of tricks for handling them. Responsible media coverage would certainly help, as you point out, and there’s a decent chapter in the Hoffman book on that topic. Sometimes, oddly enough, it’s hard to tell the fake stories from the real ones. You mentioned the kids getting their teacher to stay home with an anthrax hoax. Well, back in 1984 the Rajneeshee cult–remember the Bhagwan? short wrinkled guy, long wrinkled beard?–wanted to elect its own Oregon county commissioner and considered various ways to rig the voting. Practicing how to keep non-cult members away from the polls, they spread salmonella in local salad bars and poisoned more than 750 people.

I mentioned last time that “untargeted prevention” against terrorism involves throwing roadblocks up at every stage of a potential attack from inception to execution. The hope is that lots of minor obstacles, each stopping some bad guys, will compensate for the lack of a single, foolproof defense. But short of becoming a garrison state, it’s still too easy to conjure up scenarios in which all the hurdles are surmounted, so I won’t be comfortable until we have more “targeted prevention” as well–and as Heymann said, that means better intelligence. The problem is that this will inevitably come at some price in terms of infringements on civil liberties.

Reasonable people can disagree here, to be sure, and maybe I’m too sanguine about ceding powers to the state (being one of the Illuminati at the CFR and all), but an important part of my ideal counterterrorism program would be an expansion of our intelligence-gathering efforts, domestic as well as foreign. Right now rules called the “attorney general’s guidelines” prohibit the FBI from monitoring potentially worrisome groups unless and until there’s an imminent prospect of a crime being committed. The sensible reason for this is to avoid having Big Brother snooping around everywhere, and it is true that the government has abused its authority in the past. But in an era when a previously unknown group’s first criminal act might be the catastrophic use of weapons of mass destruction, I think a more comprehensive and aggressive approach is called for–one that keeps close tabs on a large number of cults and extremists, for example, and notes when they start composing love poems to chemical weapons. For enraged readers already preparing e-mail responses, I will simply say that I consider the alternatives–massive civil defense programs or complacent vulnerability–worse.

You get the last word, but let me close my half of this (delightful) exchange with three final observations. First, and parochially, it’s nice to see some security-related stuff in Slate for a change. A great Webzine, but international newspaper coverage is no substitute for regular, in-depth foreign policy and defense analysis.

Second, I wish we had had space to discuss cyberterrorism, a topic that might have been of particular interest to Slate readers. (Actually, I don’t wish that, because I don’t know enough about the subject to say anything intelligent, but I suppose a similar logic of reverse engineering and catastrophe prevention applies there too.)

Third, you started out arguing that the appearance of yet another crop of terrorism books was a cyclical thing not worthy of much interest or action. I disagree. Apart from a few classics like Walter Laqueur’s Terrorism, the earlier literature in this area has generally been weak. The books under discussion are mostly quite good, and deserve to be read and pondered by those in power. The other day I happened to be reading A.L. Rowse’s little volume Appeasement, in which he vents his anger at those British leaders in the 1930s who failed to see danger looming and take steps to head it off. “But why should they have been surprised?” he asks. “As we have seen, they had plenty of faithful warnings all along. And anyhow, what are political leaders for? Do we employ them to fall for the enemies of their country, to put across to us the lies they are such fools as to believe? Not at all: The proper function of political leaders is precisely not to be taken in, but to warn us.” Strong stuff, but justified in his case. I hope none of us has to write similar words about our leaders down the road.