The Book Club

Pringle and Rose

Pleased to make your (virtual) acquaintance. I read your Nation article on bioterrorism and liked it, although I didn’t agree with all your points, so I’m curious to see whether we have different reactions to the books under review. I thought I’d start out with a snapshot of each so Slate readers know what we’re discussing.

Inside Terrorism, by Bruce Hoffman (now at the Rand Corporation), is a concise summary of trends in terrorism past and present. It describes the anarchist and leftist terrorism of the late nineteenth century, the nationalist and separatist terrorism of the colonial and postcolonial era, the international and state-sponsored terrorism of the 1970s and ‘80s, and the religious terrorism of today. Terrorism and America, by Philip Heymann (a professor at Harvard Law School), is an overview of how the United States responds–or should respond, in his view. (Since Heymann served for a while as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, the two are pretty similar.) And The Ultimate Terrorists, by Jessica Stern (currently a colleague of mine at the Council on Foreign Relations), analyzes the special case of terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and recommends steps to deal with what she considers a major new threat.

I think the most striking thing about these books–together with other recent works such as America’s Achilles’ Heel , by Richard Falkenrath, Robert Newman, and Bradley Thayer (MIT Press)–is that by and large they agree about the nature of the contemporary terrorist challenge and what we should do about it. What we are now seeing, in other words, is the emergence of a new conventional wisdom among serious students of the subject. I detect a rough consensus on three distinct points:

1. Traditional terrorism has been and will continue to be an annoyance and a foreign-policy challenge, but a relatively minor one that should be kept in proper perspective. Extralegal political violence by individuals and groups has occurred throughout history, but rarely rises to the level of a serious national-security threat. Most terrorism involves carefully calibrated acts of symbolic violence designed to advance a political, social, or bureaucratic agenda, and true mass murder could be counterproductive (because it might stigmatize the group, provoke retaliation, or cause internal dissent). Garden-variety terrorists, as Brian Jenkins famously noted, want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead. Governments, accordingly, should use a variety of low-impact means to fight traditional terrorists–such as good intelligence, law enforcement, cooperation with allies, etc.–but avoid costly and counterproductive overreactions.

2. Nontraditional terrorism could be much more dangerous. Traditional terrorists have generally shunned weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, or nuclear), less because such weapons were impossible to obtain than because causing vast numbers of casualties was not the point of their operations. Other kinds of terrorists are more unpredictable and might seek to maximize bloodshed. Three such types come to mind: religious fanatics who consider violence a sacramental act or believe they are the direct instruments of divine retaliation; eschatological cults with a penchant for violence; and disturbed or hate-filled activists who want to inflict pain on a grand scale. The good news is that such groups are few and far between. The bad news is that all three types do exist–as the World Trade Center bombing, the Aum Shinrikyo Japanese subway attack, and the Oklahoma City bombing testify–and there is reason to believe their numbers are growing. More bad news is the fact that WMD capability is gradually coming within range of many sub-state actors through the general diffusion of scientific skills and dual-use technologies.

3. Prudence dictates, therefore, that we should take a variety of precautionary measures now in order to reduce vulnerability, head off attacks, and manage potential consequences. In addition to its standard counterterrorism repertoire, that is, the U.S. government should: improve intelligence collection and analysis and focus on the groups that cause the greatest concern (religious fanatics, cults, and free-lance extremists); restructure bureaucratic organizations; enhance domestic preparedness by protecting critical infrastructures, training first responders, and stockpiling medicines and vaccines; help Russia manage the material and human remnants of the massive Soviet-era WMD programs; and outlaw WMD possession by sub-state actors.

I share this new conventional wisdom, and thus I support the president’s recent proposals to increase spending for control of Russian fissile materials and for preparations against WMD terrorism. I even support loosening the current “attorney general’s guidelines” that govern how the FBI can investigate potential terrorists. Like you, I scorn the silly and excessive hype the subject has attracted in the media but believe that complacency is at least as great a danger. Ordinary citizens shouldn’t walk around terrified, but the officials responsible for protecting them should. Do you disagree?