9/11 And the Need to Prove Policing Can Stop Terrorism

Now that I have my angry post out of the way I want to talk about 9/11 and policing.

The US is a country with one of the largest unsecured borders in the world. It is also one of the most open large societies in the world.

This has many advantages: an economy so excellent that people are willing to immigrate to become what counts as poor here, an intellectual culture so vibrant that we make an outsized number of the world's scientific discoveries, the freedom to move about a huge and varied land mass for almost any reason imaginable. But terrorism exploits this openness.

Let me first be clear about my understanding of 9/11:

I don't believe it could have been stopped by acceptable levels of increased security. I don't believe it would have been stopped by the current levels of security, and we are willing to put up with far more than we would have before the attack.

I believe it is highly unlikely that it would have been stopped by 'increased intelligence' in any level which we would have found acceptable before 9/11. One of the most intensive intelligence capabilities in the history of the world, employed during the Cold War, still missed Soviet moles in some of our most sensitive branches of government. Long-term undercover agents penetrating our most secretive branches ought to be somewhat easier to detect over decades than the relatively short-term (1-3 years) planning employed by the 9/11 attackers who merely need to get into the country. Yet still there were agents who went undetected for years and years.

But I understand why clinging to the belief that 9/11 'could have been stopped' is so appealing to the Democrats. They are certainly correct that 'if only we had looked at the right things' we could have stopped the attack. But it is quite a bit closer to saying 'if only I had picked the right lottery numbers I would be a millionaire' than they seem to believe. (See an excellent analysis of hindsight and data mining by Jane Galt.) But it is crucial to Democrats that 9/11 ought to have been stoppable by ordinary police work because the policing approach is their preferred method of operation.

We all know that the Middle East has to be reformed. The crucial question is, how much time do we have? Can we wait for it to mostly fix itself, or do we have to be agressive about trying to fix it? If policing is not particularly effective the Middle East needs to be reformed fairly soon, because we cannot count on policing to stop every terrorist attack (or for the sake of argument nearly every terrorist attack). If we can count on policing to stop almost all terror attacks, we can take our time and wait a couple of decades or a century for the Middle East to (hopefully) sort itself out.

If policing cannot stop most well-planned terrorist attacks, we are led to a more aggressive and overtly interventionalist stance. It might not be precisely what the neo-cons are suggesting, but it would be closer to that than the relatively hands-off approach which most on the left claim to prefer (usually because we don't want to be seen as hegemonic or imperial).

The policing question also applies to appeals about international 'cooperation'. Large international bodies are slow to react, slow to change, and slow to accept new realities. And that is slow even compared to governments in general. If policing is very effective against terrorism, we can spend a couple of decades hammering out the international response to it, because very few attacks will be able to get through. Internal policing is also what the international community has expressed the greatest willingness to engage in. They aren't much interested in dealing with the problem at its source in the Middle East. So going with policing doesn't take much political capital, and it lets the international community take as much time as it wants.

This is why it is so important for Democrats to use the 9/11 Commission to explain that BUT FOR mistakes made by the Bush administration, 9/11 could have ALMOST CERTAINLY have been stopped. It isn't just to attack Bush, though they relish that. It is because many of their ideas about international cooperation and soft power are threatened if policing isn't generally sufficient to deal with terrorism.

Posted by Sebastian Holsclaw at April 14, 2004 4:00 AM