Day: November 1, 2017

We have met the enemy

Today’s national security headaches include both the foreign use of the internet to interfere in US elections and “lone wolf” terrorist attacks by individuals who may or may not have been in direct touch with extremist groups. Congress is busy raking tech company CEOs over the coals about the former and New York City’s bicyclists and pedestrians are the latest victims of the latter. What is to be done about these unconventional, but real and present dangers?

Mayor De Blasio is showing us the right way to respond to terrorists: he is advising New Yorkers to go about their business in the usual way, ignoring the threat. That is easier in New York than some other places, since it is the natural inclination of its citizens anyway. No doubt there will be funerals and memorials, but New Yorkers are well advised not to give terrorists the satisfaction of disrupting millions of lives or prompting extraordinary security measures, none of which are likely to foil an attack of the kind the occurred yesterday.

President Trump’s tweets point in the opposite direction: he thinks the New York attack justifies “extreme vetting” and his travel ban. This is nonsense: there is no indication that those measures would have stopped the perpetrator, a green card holder from Uzbekistan. Searching for people who might be radicalized in a giant haystack of citizens, green card holders and immigrants is never going to succeed 100%. Nor does failure threaten the constituents at whom Trump targets his tweets: mostly rural and suburban voters in parts of the United States that have never seen an attack in the name of Allah. Attacks in the name of white supremacy on their turf are much more common.

The real problem is us. By reacting in unreasonable ways to terrorist attacks by people who yell Allahu Akbar, we amplify their impact and cause far more damage than would otherwise be the case.

The same is true for foreign use of the internet. Much of the Russian-initiated garbage that appears to have affected our electorate in 2016 is easily recognizable as stuff intended to excite unreasonable responses, or just plain false. Some people respond nevertheless, mainly those with less than a college education who are inclined to think others are getting the best of them. I’m not at all sure a college education is all that important, but this is one of the better arguments for making sure more people get one. Literacy is not just about reading but also understanding.

I could extend this argument that we are our own worst enemy to other spheres. Our threats are making North Korea redouble its commitment to gaining the technology required to hit the US with nuclear weapons. The President’s decertification of the Iran nuclear deal undermined the relative moderates who support it in Tehran. Our drone strikes have created more terrorists than they have killed and have spread them to more countries.

I’m not against taking action against those who have taken up arms against the US and its citizens, or against those who undermine our political system or threaten us with nuclear weapons. But we need to educate ourselves not to make things worse. Terrorists use violence for political ends. We should not allow our reactions to help them achieve their purposes. The Russians use the internet for political ends as well. We should not allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

We have met the enemy. He is us.


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