Tierney and Pape on the 'War' on Terror

by Don Boudreaux on July 9, 2005

in Terrorism

Read these two articles – here, and here – that appear in the opinion section of today’s New York Times. Read them twice. Three times. They are about the London bombings and the war on terrorism.

The first is by the Times’s stellar columnist John Tierney, who wisely if unpopularly says:

it’s clear that no one can stop terrorists from killing. Spending billions on airport security has simply diverted them to transit systems, and spending billions on transit systems could at best divert them somewhere else: stores, restaurants, sidewalks. Terrorists don’t even need bombs. They could simply adopt the [October 2002 Virginia] snipers’ technique for spreading fear.

President Bush briefly admitted last summer to Matt Lauer that the war on terror couldn’t ever be won, but he got so much criticism that he promptly backtracked. It was a textbook Washington gaffe: perfectly true but terribly inconvenient.

It was inconvenient because politicians like to promise a cure for any problem in the news, especially if the cure means dispensing money to constituents and campaign contributors.

Promises to halt terror have turned homeland security spending into the biggest porkfest in Washington, and the London attacks have inspired calls for still more spending.

Washington obviously has a role in hunting terrorists and protecting the borders, but it can’t stop small-scale attacks like the ones in London, no matter how much money it gives to each Congressional district.

Many people dismiss such advice because they insist on believing that there’s some level of "toughness" – some degree of fierce belligerence by Uncle Sam – some volume of American blood and guts and mothers’ tears – some regrettable-but-necessary sacrifice of freedoms – that can and eventually will ‘win the war on terrorism.’

The second article is by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape. In his book Dying to Win, Pape presents detailed research on the pattern of suicide bombings since 1980. (I know, I know: we have no evidence yet that the London bombs were toted by persons who were suicidal.) Pape’s conclusion is clear: these people terrorize western nations not because we are free, rich, or morally degenerate. They terrorize us because of our foreign policies.

The best way to prevent these people from terrorizing us is for Uncle Sam to pull his troops out of the middle east.

I leave, at least for now, to others to debate if such a move would be ‘giving in to terrorists.’ I content myself here merely to point out that if a government has any legitimate functions, surely the most central of these is to protect its people from violence inflicted by foreign invaders. If Uncle Sam’s current foreign policies promote such invasions of terrorists (as Pape’s evidence suggests), then Uncle Sam’s first duty – if it truly puts the welfare of Americans first – is to have its garrisons and guns scram from the middle east ASAP.

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