So where do we go from here? Terrorism is a real problem, and one that will only get more dangerous. I’ve argued that terrorism is well within the capabilities of the individual, with or without backing from rogue states. I don’t think removing Hussein will make us appreciably safer. Even if stopping rogue states is the best way to combat terrorism, we’re literally months away from seeing North Korea get more than enough nukes, and Pakistan is one coup away from being very unfriendly. As has been accurately observed, the problem of regime change in a rogue state with nukes is a far cry from the problem of regime change in a rogue state without nukes.
Or, in short: regime change in Iraq ain’t gonna make that much of a difference in the terrorism threat. It would feel good to believe that it does. Terrorism scares me. But the war on Iraq is not making me feel any safer.
So where’s safety?
One really obvious approach is to surrender our privacy to the government. Central London’s a good example of this; there are cameras everywhere. When you go down into the subway, there are posters encouraging people to pay the television tax — and they identify specific streets and specific numbers of people who haven’t paid the bill. It’s a surveillance society. There is not a lot of crime in Central London. It works.
The Patriot Act, Operation TIPS, and other such bills would work. There would certainly be ancillary damage to our rights. Some innocent people would get caught in the net. Misguided Presidents would use the technology to crack down on legitimate actions. Terrorism would be sharply reduced. It wouldn’t be worth the price.
So what’s worth the price?
David Brin proposes one method in The Transparent Society. He says we should give up our privacy — but not to the government. Rather, we should give it up to each other. He argues that we have nothing to fear from large databases and cameras, as long as they’re open to anyone who wants to look at them.
It’s an interesting argument. When I originally read the book, I didn’t think that there was any benefit to such openness that would be worth the sacrifice. My opinions have shifted somewhat since 9/11. It might be an emotional reaction, but I don’t think we’re as safe as I once assumed we were. I think that in the face of terrorism, maybe it would be worth giving up the privacy in a way that doesn’t force us to give up our freedoms.
A libertarian response (I hesitate to say the libertarian response) is withdrawal. Jim Henley, whose blog I linked above, argues that we should take a step back from our various international entanglements, thus reducing accidental resentment. There’s a lot to this; while Osama would probably still be a terrorist if we hadn’t stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, he might not have focused quite as hard on us. On the other hand, I think our relative wealth would still make us a target for resentment.
My anarchistic belief is that we’d be well served by going a step further (and one step sideways), and devolving as much responsibility as possible back to the states. The United States is a very large target. Few terrorists talk about going after the EU. Perhaps we should draw some conclusions from that. And, frankly, if the State of North Carolina feels compelled to involve itself in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I’d just as soon that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is clearly not involved in that decision.
Combine both approaches — decentralization of responsibility, and a transparent society — and you’ve gone a lot further towards preventing and combatting future terrorist attacks without spending tens of billions of dollars on bribing Turkey to let our troops attack Iraq from the north. Kind of radical concepts, I’ll admit, but it behooves me to fess up to what I have in mind given the amount of time I’ve spent criticizing Bush.