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What is an appropropriate response?
Political and philosophical considerations after the attack on the Word Trade Center

Coming to grips with terrorism

Paul de Armond
September 13, 2001

The horrifying events in New York and Washington, DC still have the nation
reeling in shock. The unprecedented scale of the attacks, the massive scope
of the damage, the uncertainty about the identity of the attackers and the 
paralysis of national institutions were a psychic trauma of unprecedented 
magnitude for this generation of Americans. The world has not suddenly 
changed, but the scales have been peeled from our eyes. The world is a 
much smaller place than it used to be. Our nation's self-image has long 
been shaped by a feeling of immunity from remote events. Those and other 
fantasies of the past crumbled yesterday. What remains to be seen is 
whether or not we have the wisdom, the will and the courage to adapt and 
go forward. This is just the first of many difficult questions which we 
must confront. The foremost question is: will we make the world a safer or
more dangerous place by our response to the airliner attacks? History is 
cluttered with examples of wooden-headed failures to learn from experience.
Most of the tragedies of human folly can be attributed to senselessly 
pursuing bad policy when better alternatives exist. The national illusion 
of invulnerability and invincibility has been badly shaken. The notion 
that we can pursue our national goals and priorities with complete 
disregard for the interests, feelings and passions of the rest of the 
world needs to be seriously examined. The recent emphasis on tactical 
security and intelligence failures which enabled or failed to prevent 
these attacks obscures a deeper issue: the failure of the U.S. to evolve 
and adapt a comprehensive anti-terrorism policy which is responsive to 
events in the real world. Like the cavalry generals at the outbreak of WWI,
U.S. anti-terrorism policy is outdated, inadequate and badly in need of 
a searching re-evaluation. The bureaucratic and political inertia which 
has hampered policymaking was not destroyed in the attacks. The paralysis 
and inappropriate responses in the immediate aftermath of the attacks is 
perhaps the most telling sign of the policy vacuum which has been allowed 
to develop. The need for a reappraisal of U.S. policy was acute before the
attacks and its urgency is in no way diminished in the aftermath. This will
be a difficult task, but if the widely applied parallel to Pearl Harbor has
any validity, then a though-going shakeout had better be forthcoming. The 
calls for national unity are not only meaningless - since there is no 
political division requiring unification - but counterproductive if they 
mean getting behind failed policies that are demonstrably contrary to our 
national self interest.

Catastrophic terrorism is not new, but it is poorly understood by the 

Despite the fact that public figures and the media were disoriented by 
events, these attacks were not unexpected. The 1993 World Trade Center 
bombing, the Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attacks in Japan and the Oklahoma 
City bombing were watershed events that transformed our understanding of 
the "new terrorism." The character, frequency and lethality of terrorist 
incidents underwent a noticeable sea change after the demise of the Cold 
War and the relative success of multilateral policy initiatives to curtail
international terrorism as a proxy for major powers' foreign policy. 
Terrorism is a dynamic phenomena, the relative success of policies 
designed to curtail state-sanctioned terrorism produced an evolution in 
terrorist behavior. First and foremost was the change in the character and
motivation of terrorist groups from deniable assets of national policy to 
sub-national groups pursuing religious and cultural goals. The second 
important qualitative difference in terrorism was the shift from 
hierarchical terrorist organizations which mimicked the structure of their
sponsors and opponents to more diffuse networks without clearly defined 
centers of power or chains of command. The third significant change was 
the increase in the lethality of terrorist attacks. While terrorist 
incidents have declined substantially over the last several decades, the 
number of casualties associated with major incidents has increased 
substantially. This emergent trend towards rarer and more deadly terrorism
produced a small network of researchers and policy analysts who have 
focused on what is termed "catastrophic terrorism." Catastrophic terrorism
is one pole of a scale of incident magnitude. At the lowest end is the
"local incident" which was typical of the terrorist attacks of the 1960's 
and 70's. A local incident involved few casualties, was confined to a 
small area such as a single room or vehicle and was well within the 
capabilities of available "consequence management" resources. A
"mass-casualty" incident, such as the events which triggered the
evaluation of "new terrorism," involves casualties in the hundreds, a much
more  complex environment and places severe strains on responding agencies. 
Until the jetliner attacks on New York and Washington D.C., no terrorist 
incidents had exceeded the mass-casualty threshold. Catastrophic terrorism
involves incidents where the scale and scope of the attack completely 
overwhelms the ability of responders to cope. In the discussions of 
catastrophic terrorism, most of the scenarios involved the use of weapons 
of mass destruction: chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons.
The only human experience with these instruments of mass-murder has come
from warfare involving national military forces. Since World War II, the 
major industrialized powers have always been the attackers in these 
incidents, never the targets. As a result, most of the strategic thinking 
and policy analysis imagined these attacks would be reflexively modeled on
our own capacity for committing these acts. It is only now that the massive
and fatal blunder in this strategic thinking has been tragically and 
painfully revealed. Failing to understand opponents is a correctable error,
but falsely imagining them to be just like oneself is an irretrievable 

Need to reevaluate strategic policy

If we believe, as we must, that policy influences events, the most serious
and pressing policy issue is what effect our current policy stance had in 
contributing to the jetliner attacks. A comprehensive, critical and 
searching inquiry into counter-terrorism policy is clearly needed. It 
makes no sense to do more of what we are already doing if our current 
policy encourages, provokes and enables terrorists. The extent to which 
current policy is flawed can be seen in the presidential transition 
briefing papers presented to then president-elect Bush by the RAND 
Corporation, a California think tank. The complete report, Taking Charge: 
A Bipartisan Report to the President Elect on Foreign Policy and National 
Security - Discussion Papers, edited by Frank Carlucci, Robert Hunter, 
Zalmay Khalilzad can be found at: . 
Bruce Hoffman, vice-president of RAND and head of their terrorism studies 
group has some strong criticism of the existing terrorism policies. He 
notes that "U.S. counterterrorism policy must be anchored to a clear, 
comprehensive, and coherent strategy." He also notes that such a strategy 
is currently lacking and that no comprehensive policy evaluation has taken
place since wrenching changes were hurriedly implemented in the wake of the
Oklahoma City bombing: "the collective U.S. policy mindset in responding to
terrorism remains arguably locked in a 1995-96 time frame." At that time, 
the focus of counterterrorism shifted to events modeled on the World Trade
Center bombing, the Aum nerve gas attacks, and the Oklahoma bombing. 
Furthermore, he notes that "the means do not currently exist to undertake 
a comprehensive domestic terrorism net assessment." Among the list of 
deficiencies, Hoffman observes "[...] attention needs to be paid to the 
psychological as well as the physical effects of a terrorist attack. 
Nearly three quarters of the 5,000 casualties who received medical 
treatment as a result of the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, 
for example, in fact suffered from adverse psychological effects including
shock, emotional upset and psychosomatic symptoms." The absence of any such
preparedness was seen nationally after the attack, as the entire nation 
exhibited signs of precisely such shock and upset. Numerous other failures
in counterterrorism policy exist to be corrected. Perhaps the most grievous
blunder is the simultaneous blackout of meaningful information on and the 
inadvertent lionization of Osama bin Laden. Hoffman notes that "bin Laden 
has achieved a prominence and stature in recent years partially as a 
result of efforts that have failed to consider additional means by which 
support and sympathy for him and his cause could have been deflated or 
deflected rather than fueled and enhanced."

Lessons from past incidents

There are several as yet unlearned lessons from past terrorist experiences.
First of all, it should be noted that much of the "new terrorism" 
involves heavily brutalized communities. The swath of war and destruction 
that has swept back and forth over the Islamic world for the last fifty 
years has eroded many communities sense of security, peace and safety. 
From Algeria to Bangladesh, a broad region of the world which has suffered
repeated brutalization. In these regions, the incorporation of violence 
into the culture has produced a considerable population motivated by rage,
isolation and powerlessness. It is from this population that terrorists are
recruited. In October 1999, John V. Parachini, a Senior Associate at the 
Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Nonproliferation 
studies, testified before Congress on assessing the threat of 
mass-casualty or catastrophic terrorism. In assessing eight incidents of
"unconventional" terrorism involving the use of extraordinarily deadly 
tactics, the Monterey Institute terrorism study group identified six 
characteristics which distinguished these incidents from "conventional" 

* Charismatic leadership (6 of 8 incidents)
* No outside constituency (8 of 8 incidents)
* Apocalyptic ideology (4 of 6 incidents)
* Loners or splinter groups (6 of 8 incidents)
* Sense of paranoia and grandiosity (8 of 8 incidents)
* Defensive aggression (7 of 8 incidents)

Brian Jenkins, former head of the RAND terrorism studies group, has 
defined "conventional" terrorism as groups who want "a lot of people 
watching, not a lot of people dead." "Unconventional" terrorism involves 
actors who specifically want a lot of people dead.

The organizers of the attack likely are a relatively small group with 
limited resources

The characteristics of past unconventional terrorists suggest a 
substantially different profile of the perpetrators of the jetliner 
attacks from what the public is being told in the immediate aftermath of 
the attacks. The image being painted by government officials and the media
is of a sizeable group controlled by Osama bin Laden with a high degree of 
organization, finance and support structure. If this is the case, it will 
be in utter contradiction to what we know and have known for some time 
about these types of incidents. The image of a quasi-institution with 
extensive organization, large amounts of funding, and clearly defined 
boundaries. This is a projection of our military/industrial self-image 
onto the unknown attackers, not a considered view derived from confirmed 
evidence. If nothing else, this confusion about the nature of the 
attackers is evidence that the intelligence and security failures which 
preceded the attack have not miraculously vanished but persist and will 
continue to haunt us. The real picture of the attacking group is probably 
quite different from the initial reporting. It is always dangerous to make
predictions, particularly since dissenting views are more likely to fall 
under criticism than mistaken consensus. Be that as it may, the attackers 
are most likely a rival or splinter group with respect to the bin Laden/
Al-Qaida, network rather than recognized leaders within that network. 
Secondly, they did not require massive funding or extensive infrastructure.
The attackers are currently known to number between three and six per 
aircraft. This gives a total of at least fifteen and no more than twenty 
four. The limiting factor on the number of attacks is probably the 
availability of people with minimal flight training. The support network 
for a terrorist operation is necessarily limited by the need for security 
and it is very rare for support personnel to number more than three times 
the operational group. This suggests the total number of people directly 
involved in the attacks was somewhere between fifty and seventy five. Some
of the attackers are known to have been in the U.S. since December and 
February. As many as 27 (more than were believed to be on board the four 
planes) are reported to have received flight training. The cost of flight 
training is said to be between $10,000 and $20,000. This expense, combined
with living expenses for nine months (reportedly the identified attackers 
lived quite modestly) and the cost of travel works out to around $30,000 
per person for the entire period or a little more than $3,000 per month 
for the known duration of the terrorist operation. This is a tiny amount 
of finances, compared to the costs of fielding military personnel for nine
months of operations. This small financial requirement is an indication of 
the size of the network directly supporting the attack cells. Given the 
sophisticated strategy of coordinated attack, it is a reasonable 
assumption that if the supporting network had more resources, they would 
have been employed in hijacking more aircraft. This is additional 
circumstantial evidence that the responsible organization is splinter or 
faction group.

Bin Laden is unlikely to be solely responsible and may not be directly 

Recent public statements by senior U.S. officials implicating Osama bin 
Laden in the jetliner attacks may be erroneous or misguided. The repeated 
insistence on assigning central responsibility to bin Laden is not based 
on any concrete evidence. Rather, it is the result of centralizing 
attention on him as a boogey man and ignoring the copious evidence that 
Muslim fundamentalist terrorism exists in a loose and non-hierarchical 
network of competing and contending groups. The massive intelligence 
failure which has not properly assessed the difference between networks 
and hierarchies is probably the single most fundamental error contributing
to our increased vulnerability to catastrophic terrorism. It is very likely
that the supposed "connections," "links," and "ties" to bin Laden are not 
really very solid or backed up by concrete evidence. Instead, it is most 
likely the result of intelligence and policy analysts seizing on bin Laden
as the most visible and well-financed node in a complex and continually 
shifting network of sympathetic terrorist groups and factions. To date, 
the only publicly presented evidence of a "connection" to bin Laden is the
reported interception of communications after the attacks informing bin 
Laden's organization of the success - information that was already 
spreading over the world media at the same time. A simple question to 
consider about the imputed responsibility of the bin Laden/Al-Qaida 
network: if our intelligence before the attacks was defective, what has 
changed to improve it?

The role of provocative U.S. policy

The U.S. illusion of invulnerability has created a callous disregard for 
destabilizing effects of violence as a policy tool. For twenty years, 
there have been sporadic U.S. reflexive attacks with aircraft and cruise 
missiles after terrorist incidents. The "wag the dog" attacks in the wake 
of the African embassy bombings are the most recent example of this 
irresponsible and counter-productive strategy. American policy makers have
enshrined as dogma the myth that our policy is neither provocative nor 
escalatory. The standard tag line of using military force for "sending a 
message" is a good example of the sheer woodenheadedness of reflexive 
violence. A crucial flaw in U.S. counterterrorism policy is the failure to
consider the provocative aspects of U.S. policy.  For over five years, U.S.
policy has focused considerable attention and billions of dollars of 
funding on catastrophic terrorism, particularly on defending against 
chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. This, like much of
our other defense spending, has increased our vulnerability by 
concentrating resources on low-probability/high-consequence events. In 
addition to starving less cosmetically attractive, but absolutely 
necessary, measures like airport security and rescue services of resources,
the emphasis on catastrophic terrorism advertised our greatest fears and
vulnerabilities. The significant characteristics of past known terrorist 
groups which have attempted catastrophic terrorism offer an important 
lesson in evaluating both policy and contemplated actions in response to 
the attack. The most valuable actions against an opponent are those which 
create surprise or incomprehension in their minds. The characteristics of 
rejecting outside constituencies, apocalyptic ideology, paranoia, 
grandiosity and defensive aggression are familiar territory in the mental 
landscape of unconventional terrorists. The presence of these signals in 
either statements or actions by the U.S. is a form of surrender to the 
terrorist mindset. The impotent bluster of defensive aggression as 
exhibited by some of our less responsible officials is nothing less than 
caving in to terrorism. Likewise the miasma of secrecy and paranoia which 
has hampered our informational response is equally contrary to national 
interests. The shock and upset following these attacks is not without 
reason, but the absence of effective planning for consequence management 
is neither unforeseeable nor excusable. An important test of both 
immediate responses and more forward-looking policy debate is considering 
how much the proposed action or policy mimics the characteristics of 
catastrophic terrorism. The more like terrorists we are, the less 
effective we can be. This means answering rage with restraint, violence 
with anti-violence, grandiose paranoia with humility and isolation with 
bridge-building. Adapting successfully will mean deep reconsideration of a
wide range of policies and practices.

U.S. has actively suppressed criticism of security policy

In 1993 and 1996, A. Mary Schiavo, Inspector General for the U.S. 
Transportation Department, tested security at major airports. The testing 
found major deficiencies in airport security. In 1996, Congress funded an 
inadequate upgrade to airport securities measures, based in part on 
Schiavo's findings. Schiavo resigned in protest. In 1999, she took her 
concerns public and enlisted the help of WCMH-TV in demonstrating the 
porosity of security in U.S. airports. The response of the FBI was to 
target her and the television reporters for an investigation of possible 
violations of federal law. The Federal Aviation Administration banned 
investigations of security flaws by news media. These actions by the FBI 
and the FAA are an object lesson in how the suppression of dissenting 
opinion undermines security. Terrorists conduct extensive intelligence 
operations in planning attacks. The cover-up and retributive FBI 
investigation of former Inspector General Schiavo was likely a provocative
factor in the recent attacks. It is also likely that the scandalous 
security deficiencies at Logan Airport and the attendant publicity played 
a role in the terrorists' selection of that location as a point of 
departure. This is far more likely than the widely touted presence of 
Osama bin Laden's estranged relatives as prominent and loyal residents of 
that city. The experience of former Inspector General Schiavo is only one 
example of how the politics of security policy are conducted. The failure 
to consider differing opinion and the refusal to explore available 
alternatives is the classic sign of folly: pursuing policy contrary to 
self interest. The necessary debate on U.S. policy must necessarily 
involve the entire range of public opinion and knowledge. This is the 
outstanding informational strength of a truly open and democratic society.
It may very well be necessary to explicitly solicit minority views and to 
encourage the publication of dissenting analysis. Perhaps the gravest 
danger facing us today is the manufacture of a counterfeit consensus and 
the unification of public opinion behind wrong-headed and self-destructive

Defending democracy

The best way to defend democracy is to act in accord with democratic 
values. That may sound easy, but "doing democracy" is considerably 
different than being a consumer of political rhetoric and mass-media 
infotainment. "Doing democracy" means being an activist - with all the 
attendant risk, sacrifice and uncertainty that entails. It also means 
challenging widely accepted notions if they are in conflict with the facts
or democratic values. On a national scale, it is clear that a searching 
re-evaluation of foreign and domestic policy is needed before lurching off
into military or political actions with grave and lasting consequences. On 
the local scale, attention needs to be paid to the inevitable erosion of 
democracy that accompanies outbreaks of militaristic nationalism. 
Humanitarian projects, such as a searching and comprehensive evaluation of
post-disaster consequence management: psychological trauma, information 
policies, protection of civil liberties, and forestalling scapegoating 
attacks. Locally, little has been done to address the lack of treatment 
for the psychic trauma. At noon Tuesday, I was downtown near the 
Bellingham Federal Building. In the course of one half hour, I witnessed 
several people who were clearly suffering from shock and exhibiting the 
classic signs of pale, drawn faces and listless manner. During that period,
I also saw a pedestrian blunder across the street against the traffic 
lights and a car turn the wrong way down Magnolia Street. Later that 
afternoon, I saw several near-miss traffic accidents. At no time did I 
seen or hear on any of the local or national media any word of the need 
for people to take precautions against the psychological consequences of 
the attack. One would have thought that Bellingham, of all places, would 
have derived some experience in dealing with the sort of widespread mental
trauma which follows a disaster. Evidently, we have not drawn many useful 
lessons from our experience with the pipeline explosion. Developing civic 
policy to guide media and public officials in managing psychic trauma is 
something that we can do here and now - a local action which may provide 
an example to others across the country and around the world. The 
touchstone for judging the value of anti-terrorist actions is: does this 
make the trauma of violence more or less likely in the future?