On a quiet afternoon, just two weeks ago, a teenage girl approached a supermarket. Though there was nothing unusual about her appearance, she was carrying a large bag over her shoulder and acting a bit strangely. A security guard approached her, just a few feet outside the entrance to the store, and she detonated a bomb she had been carrying. Though she killed herself and two others, witnesses said that had she been inside the store, she would have killed dozens of people.
Though this particular attack happened in Jerusalem, Americans have learned in recent months that we are not immune to terrorism. The quiet vigilance of a modestly-trained security guard saved many lives.
In his column of April 15, David Grimm GRD ’04 complained that the National Institutes of Health and other local, state and federal agencies were spending too much of their budgets on sometimes ineffective and often unnecessary security measures. In a liberal society that values freedom, privacy and the rights of the individual over the collective, combating terrorism is a complex and expensive proposition.
Absent personal freedoms, eliminating terrorism would be easy. All one would have to do is issue a biometric ID card to every person in the U.S. Each time someone spoke out against the government, met with suspected dissidents, or traveled to a ‘restricted’ country, a flag would be put on that individual’s record. Whenever someone went to rent an apartment, buy a car, get on an airplane, enter a building, or use a credit card, his ID card would be used to verify his identity and check his record. If flagged, he could be detained and questioned by the FBI. Within a week of instituting such a system, any terrorist operation being planned in or against the United States would grind to a halt. Such a system would be relatively inexpensive compared with the billions of dollars we currently spend on homeland defense, security and counterintelligence.
In our society, however, such a system is implausible. This is precisely the problem with combating terrorism. One of the strategies of terrorist groups attacking liberal societies has been to perpetrate attacks that provoke a government crackdown in response. As the government begins to infringe on individual rights in the name of security, the groups continue their attacks, leading to a cycle of crackdowns and ultimately the collapse of the society’s respect for individual rights. Just recently, the British government was forced to walk this tightrope when dealing with terrorists affiliated with the Irish Republican Army.
Unfortunately, we now find ourselves in a far more precarious position. Terrorism expert Brian Jenkins put forward the maxim that has governed counterterrorist thinking since the mid-1970s — that “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.” In the past, governments tolerated a certain amount of terrorism because casualties were limited. In the wake of 9/11, it is obvious that now terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people dead. Therefore, the United States must take security more seriously.
Grimm’s criticism of the NIH’s lax but expensive security is fair. But the solution is not to end the security perimeter around its headquarters, but rather to continually plug its holes. The new thinking is on a “layered defense” in which one guards borders, buildings, and any other potential target in a combined effort of federal, state, local and private law enforcement. Each layer by itself is permeable, but together they form a powerful barrier to attacks. Recall that the majority of these security measures have been added within the last six months and are therefore under a continual state of improvement. We must bear with our new protectors as they bring their operations up to par.
Preventing terrorism in a liberal society is not easy, nor is it cheap. It is a difficult task that must be undertaken with the utmost seriousness from legislators and support from citizens. Indeed, there are no other options. We cannot capitulate and we will not sacrifice our values.
Michael Stern is a senior in Calhoun College. He is a former director of business development for the Yale Daily News.