One year ago today, the World Trade Center fell in flames. And that very day, just a few hours after the event, I wrote the following:
Some friends have asked me to step outside my normal role as a technology evangelist today, to point out in public that a political panic reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attack could do a great deal more damage than the attack itself.
Today will not have been a victory for terrorism unless we make it one. If we reward in any way the Palestinians who are now celebrating this hideous crime in the streets of the West Bank, that will have been a victory for terrorism. If we accept “anti-terrorism” measures that do further damage to our Constitutional freedoms, that will have been a victory for terrorism. But if we learn the right lessons, if we make policies that preserve freedom and offer terrorists no result but a rapid and futile death, that will have been a victory for the rest of us.
We have learned today that airport security is not the answer. At least four separate terror teams were able to sail right past all the elaborate obstacles — the demand for IDs, the metal detectors, the video cameras, the X-ray machines, the gunpowder sniffers, the gate agents and security people trained to spot terrorists by profile. There have been no reports that any other terror units were successfully prevented from achieving their objectives by these measures. In fact, the early evidence is that all these police-state-like impositions on freedom were exactly useless — and in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center lies the proof of their failure.
We have learned today that increased surveillance is not the answer. The FBI’s “Carnivore” tap on the U.S.’s Internet service providers didn’t spot or prevent this disaster; nor did the NSA’s illegal Echelon wiretaps on international telecommunications. Video monitoring of public areas could have accomplished exactly nothing against terrorists taking even elementary concealment measures. If we could somehow extend airport-level security to the entire U.S., it would be just as useless against any determined and even marginally competent enemy.
We have learned today that trying to keep civilian weapons out of airplanes and other areas vulnerable to terrorist attack is not the answer either — indeed, it is arguable that the lawmakers who disarmed all the non-terrorists on those four airplanes, leaving them no chance to stop the hijackers, bear part of the moral responsibility for this catastrophe.
I expect that in the next few months, far too many politicians and pundits will press for draconian “anti-terrorist” laws and regulations. Those who do so will be, whether intentionally or not, cooperating with the terrorists in their attempt to destroy our way of life — and we should all remember that fact come election time.
As an Internet technologist, I have learned that distributed problems require distributed solutions — that centralization of power, the first resort of politicians who feed on crisis, is actually worse than useless, because centralizers regard the more effective coping strategies as threats and act to thwart them.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that we will respond to this shattering tragedy as well as the Israelis, who have a long history of preventing similar atrocities by encouraging their civilians to carry concealed weapons and to shoot back at criminals and terrorists. But it is in that policy of a distributed response to a distributed threat, with every single citizen taking personal responsibility for the defense of life and freedom, that our best hope for preventing recurrences of today’s mass murders almost certainly lies.
If we learn that lesson, perhaps today’s deaths will not have been in vain.
As I reread the above, it does not seem to me that we have yet learned our lesson. We have taken steps towards arming pilots, but not passengers. Tiger-team probes of airport security have shown that the rate at which weapons can be smuggled through remains 30% — unchanged since before 9/11. A year later, therefore, the frisk searches of little old ladies and the no-sharp-edges prohibitions have bought us no security at all.
The scorecard is not entirely bleak. Al-Qaeda has not been able to mount another successful mass murder. Post-9/11 legal changes through the Patriot Act and related legislation have been troubling, but not disastrous. And the war against the Taliban was a rather less complicated success than one might have expected — civilian casualties minimal, no uprising of the mythical “Arab Street”, and Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure smashed. Osama bin-Laden is probably dead.
Still, the war is far from over. Islamic terrorism has not been repudiated by the ulema, the college of elders who prescribe the interpretation of the Koran and the Hadith. The call to violent jihad wired into the foundations of Islam has not yet been broken or tamed into a form civilization can coexist with. Accomplishing that is the true challenge that faces us, one greater and more subtle than merely military victory.
(Yes, I wrote the above in 2002. Some glitch in the blog software gives it a 2003 date. I don’t know why.)