Sane Comments on Terrorism

From Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center:

Ultimately, Leiter said, it’ll be the “quiet, confident resilience” of Americans after a terrorist attack that will “illustrate ultimately the futility of terrorism.” That doesn’t mean not to hit back: Leiter quickly added that “we will hold those accountable [and] we will be ready to respond to those attacks.” But it does mean recognizing, he said, that “we help define the success of an attack by our reaction to that attack.”

Sure, I’ve been saying this since forever. But I think this is the most senior government person who has said this.

EDITED TO ADD (12/8): There are enough essays with this sentiment that I’m going to stop blogging about it. Here’s what I have saved up.

Roger Cohen, “The Real Threat to America“:

So I give thanks this week for the Fourth Amendment: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

I give thanks for Benjamin Franklin’s words after the 1787 Constitutional Convention describing the results of its deliberations: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

To keep it, push back against enhanced patting, Chertoff’s naked-screening and the sinister drumbeat of fear.

Christopher Hitchens, Don’t Be an Ass About Airport Security.”

Tom Engelhardt, “The National Security State Cops a Feel.”

Evan DeFilippis, “A Nude Awakening—TSA and Privacy“:

If we have both the right to privacy and the right to travel, then TSA´s newest procedures cannot conceivably be considered legal. The TSA´s regulations blatantly compromise the former at the expense of the latter, and as time goes on we will soon forget what it meant to have those rights.

EDITED TO ADD (12/8): Also, this great comic.

Posted on December 8, 2010 at 7:10 AM37 Comments


Clive Robinson December 8, 2010 7:47 AM

@ Bruce,

Trouble is at the moment he’s a lone voice, and the rest of the pack may well turn on him as being a lone wolf…

BF Skinner December 8, 2010 7:49 AM

@Bruce “Sure, I’ve been saying this since forever”

Are you sure you’re sane though? No one likes following a lone crazy person. (less they have a gun)

jeff December 8, 2010 8:03 AM

@BF Skinner: For some reason, “Sanity is not statistical” keeps running through my mind.


Asikaa December 8, 2010 8:40 AM

A good dose of Churchillian leadership from the White House would work wonders to mitigate the climate of fear engendered by the past 10 years of Homeland Security, colour-coded threat levels and racist rabble-rousing. If Obama is in office when a significant terrorist attack succeeds, I hope he will take the path of dogged, courageous won’t-grind-us-down defiance instead of the kick-ass-don’t-mess-with-Texas approach.

neer December 8, 2010 8:49 AM

churchillian defiance is no longer available. terrorists succeed when the media and the government conspire to sell the fear. The sheeple will do as they are told, and they are told that because terrorists exist, they must listen to the fearmongers and give up all rights to be considered innocent when lists are made out for who can fly and who cant make it past the gaterape.

Clive Robinson December 8, 2010 9:10 AM

@ BF Skinner,

“How ’bout Santy? Is Santy statistical”

Hmm how ’bout (as it’s that time of year

Santa Satirical?

Mind you I realy object to the way the Christians stole a perfectly good “shortest day” fesftivl marking the death of the old year.

But atleast they left the “green” of the “ever green man”.

Then along came Poke-a-Pola and turned it all commie red…

Mind you don’t get me started at Poke-a-Pola and their grab for world domination, it’s way to much like marketing religion for my liking…

Three dried frogs pills please…

andyinsdca December 8, 2010 9:21 AM

But his comments don’t feed coal into the machine of the terror-government-industrial complex (sell more backscatter xray machines! Hire more TSA agents), so it will fall on deaf ears.

Thunderbird December 8, 2010 9:22 AM

Clive, I have no slight foggy idea what the heck you’re talking about with this “poke-a-pola” stuff. There is an almost-unprecedented zero Google hits for the phrase.
As for this post, I agree completely with Bruce. We need some leadership from our leaders.

Michelle December 8, 2010 9:23 AM

Any resilience we begin to show now would be way too late. 9-11 caused us to chase our tails for nine years, destroy thousands of lives, waste trillions of dollars, antagonize allies, create enemies, corrupt and debase our political process, and basically look like decadent, selfish, credulous, hysterical bullies.

With a potential payoff like that, if we failed to react the same way to the next attack (contrary to every rational expectation), the attackers would simply figure they had done something wrong and get right to work planning another attack. Expecting them to do othewise would be like expecting a nickel slots player to walk away from a machine that spit out a billion dollars an hour ago but only normal payouts since.

Dave X December 8, 2010 10:15 AM

…but the obvious, repeated overreactions of Americans after even inept terror attacks illustrates the continuing efficacy of terrorism.

9/11 cost the terrorists $0.5M and 20 operatives, how much did it cost us?

qwertyuiop December 8, 2010 10:24 AM

It’s not hard to do. On 7th July 2005 terrorists exploded bombs on three London Tube (subway) trains and one bus. On 8th July I joined millions of Londoners in taking a deep breath and getting on the Tube to go to work as usual. No shouting, no histrionics, we just got on and quietly did it.

If you’re a Londonder you may or may not like Ken Livingstone who was Mayor of London at the time – it will depend on your politics. However I have yet to meet anybody from any part of the political spectrum who didn’t think his speech about why the terrorists will ultimately fail is brilliant –

Angelo Castigliola December 8, 2010 10:59 AM

Agreed 100%.

It is an elementary principal we learn from a young age. First technique in dealing with a bully is to not have an over-the-top reaction, which encourage more bullying.

Regardless, it is a breath of fresh air, to hear this from high government officials, instead of the usual wanted dead-or-alive dribble.

Angelo Castigliola

Trichinosis USA December 8, 2010 11:16 AM

Churchillian defiance most decidedly IS available, but today it’s called attention deficit disorder and considered a liability – much as Churchill himself was considered by family, teachers and colleagues until Hitler showed up with an ass that needed kicking.

George December 8, 2010 11:19 AM

It’s good to see that so many commentators are speaking out against the TSA’s increasingly invasive and costly security theatre. That alone represents an improvement over the Bush years, when doing so was officially “unpatriotic.”

Unfortunately, it’s too little too late. As evidenced by Generalissimo Pistole’s personal campaign to neutralize the threatened “mass opt out” before Thanksgiving, the TSA has empowered itself to do whatever it wants regardless of what the public think about it. That’s basically the message the Generalissimo relentlessly hammered home, that resistance is futile and would only harm innocent people who only want to get home for the holidays safely. The Generalissimo and his troops surely regard the failure of this modest protest as both a victory and a vindication over their enemies (i.e., anyone who dares to question or criticize the TSA).

Also unfortunately, the critics who fear for the pointless loss of liberty, privacy, and now human dignity are still greatly outnumbered by people who fervently want to believe that the TSA is protecting them, and who are willing to surrender whatever the bully with the uniform and rubber gloves decides is necessary for “security.”

Fear always triumphs over rationality, sanity, and truth. And those who build careers, empires, and profit from Fear triumph over everything and everyone else.

Historian December 8, 2010 11:29 AM

Actually, “we will fight them on the beaches, …on the landing grounds, …in the fields and in the streets, …in the hills, we shall never surrender…” sounds a lot like “wanted dead-or-alive dribble”, but I agree with the sentiment 100%.

The key is balance, IMHO. I don’t want to try to prove that I’m not terrorized by doing nothing to avenge their terroristic acts, nor do I want to react so strongly that I give up my freedom trying to defend against their next act.

Snarki, child of Loki December 8, 2010 12:13 PM

“… and basically look like decadent, selfish, credulous, hysterical bullies.”

You left out “overweight, incoherent, pig-ignorant, and with a bee in our pants.”

Add that, and it’s a pretty accurate depiction of the US reaction from 9/11 to today.

tyler December 8, 2010 2:18 PM

I don’t understand what the problem is with training dogs to sniff out explosives and use dogs at checkpoints instead of all the take of your shoes, step into the x ray scanner nonsense. It would be cheaper, less invasive, and more effective.

Brandioch Conner December 8, 2010 5:26 PM

“I don’t understand what the problem is with training dogs to sniff out explosives and use dogs at checkpoints instead of all the take of your shoes, step into the x ray scanner nonsense.”

Seconded. Why aren’t dogs used?

Dirk Praet December 8, 2010 6:17 PM

Whichever way you turn it, terrorism directed against innocent civilians is a low and cowardly act that cannot be justified in any way. Fear mongering and expensive, retroactive countermeasures invading on basic civil rights of huge amounts of people are a poor answer for more than one reason.

To start with, it’s exactly what terrorists want: creating a climate of fear and hatred with the sole purpose of destabilizing society. In addition to that, doors are set wide open for entities with other agendas than just combatting terrorism, seizing the opportunity to increase their own control over the general public. Last but not least, I just can’t help but feeling highly sceptical about the abysmal degree of creativity displayed by many controls currently put in place. You cannot efficiently fight a disease by just tackling the symptoms.

From where I stand, resilience and determination in the end make for a better stand than many of the questionable “security controls” I see happening today. This, however, does not mean that we should just sit there and let things happen. It stands to reason that every organisation or individual engaging in suspicious activities be followed up on if there are sufficient objective reasons to do so. Although it may prove impossible to stop every lone wolf dead in his tracks, there is a lot that can be done to counter organised terrorism. And in a smarter way.

First of all, the countless intelligence and security agencies both at home and globally need to communicate well and coordinate their efforts in an efficient way (intel, infiltration, dry-bleeding of funds). With what we know today, 9/11 might have been avoided if agencies had worked together instead of on their own. Considering the number of plots thwarted since, serious progress has been made, but there is still massive room for improvement.

In the specific case of islamist terrorism, and in my opinion, the west as a whole is still not doing enough to reach out to moderate muslim communities, try to understand where they come from, find common ground and work together on issues that concern us all. Ordinary, peace-loving muslims are just as much a victim of fundamentalists as everyone else is. It’s about mutual comprehension and collaboration.

This will require substantial efforts from both sides, but eventually will prove the best guarantee to weaken support for extremist minority factions boasting they alone are the voice of the muslim world. Personally, I would also welcome higher numbers of islamic clerics speaking out against suicide terrorists and issuing fatwas against parties inciting such acts.

Again in this specific case, we may even turn to the Holy Qur’an and use it against those fundamentalists lured into believing that by dying as a martyr in the jihad, they will go to Firdaus, the Seventh Heaven. Such individuals might be dissuaded from their actions if by law a terrorist act resulting in mass murder would be punishable by denial of common death rites and remains burried at an undisclosed location, head pointed away from Mekka. If my interpretation of the scriptures is correct, this would effectively prohibit them from entering the afterlife. I do realize that I’m on very thin ice here and that I risk getting flamed by human rights activists, deeply religious folks and others crying out “cruel and unusual punishment”.

Then again, it’s just a hypothetical example of what I call “creative thinking” as a response to unusual and unconventional attacks by individuals that are more concerned with their next life than their current one. And that of others, for that matter. If my assumption would be correct – I’m not a muslim cleric – , it would prove to be a far more efficient measure than much of the stuff we’ve seen to date, at a far lower cost and without any nuisance whatsoever to the general public.

The point I’m trying to make is that you cannot win an unconventional war with conventional means. To do that, we need more out-of-the-box-thinking than is the case today.

Carl December 8, 2010 10:16 PM

Subtle but important difference between what Leitner and Bruce say..

Leitner: do every thing that can be done, just dont publicize it, dont give the terrorist any ink. Speak softly and carry a big stick, any succesful terrorist attack is a tragedy.

Bruce: we should accept the risk of a terrorist attack, a terrorist attack is a success only if we take steps to prevent an attack like that in the future. As long as we dont act scared, we win, no matter how many successfuly terrorists attacks there are.

Bruce: your key misunderstanding is in this statement: “The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.”

Terrorists arent playground bullies who have one goal, to scare you.
Terrorists have one goal, destroy you. They use tactics like terrorism instead of all out war ONLY because they dont have the numbers.

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.
If we refuse to be terrorized, if we refuse to implement security theater and remember that we can never completely eliminate the risk of terrorism, then the terrorists fail even if their attacks succeed.

“I want to be very, very clear in this because some comments in this vein have previously brought the ire of some. To say that we will not successfully defend against all attacks is certainly not to say that we are not trying to stop all attacks. We are. It is certainly not to say that any attack is OK. If there is an attack, it may well be tragic. Innocent lives will be lost.

Based on reading a couple interviews with Leitner, I see nothing that would lead me to believe he views scanners as “security theatre, created only to deprive people of their liberties”

Lawrence D’Oliveiro December 9, 2010 12:52 AM

USians don’t have a history of “quiet, confident resilience”. They’ve never been through a Blitz-type situation. The closest they’ve come to it, they tend to overreact every time: e.g. interning their own nationals of Japanese descent during World War II, and of course the ongoing paranoia after 11/9.

Bill December 9, 2010 3:40 AM

My top two faves from Bruce’s links:

‘8 times more likely to die by a police officer’

‘pilots are responsible for more deaths than terrorists’

These work because they tell a story. Everyone understands stories, few understand stats! 😉

So, if our stories beat the movie-plot stories we win. If they don’t, we lose.

My least fave quote:
‘The more recent decision (this was a specifically British touch of genius) to forbid the shipping by air of any print toner..’

Doh! I’m British! Grrrrr

Clive Robinson December 9, 2010 4:37 AM

@ Thunderbird,

“Clive, I have no slight foggy idea what the heck you’re talking about…”

I suspect the part about the “drid frogs pills” might have baffeled you as well…

A few days ago BF Skinner thought I might lbe a hippy, well as my other half has recently commented I look more like Roy Wood than Santa.

Roy Wood was the lead singer for a groupe called “Wizard” and had a very famous song with the words,

“I wish it could be Christmas every day…”

In Terry Pratchet’s Disk World books the Wizards of Unseen University have a problem with the burser who makes very strange random statments that are sometines satirical in nature. To stop this abberant behaviour they give him dried frogs pills.

David Thornley December 9, 2010 8:58 AM

@Carl: Your mistake is in overestimating the terrorists.

Yes, some of them want to destroy us, rather than terrorize us. Why should I care about that? If they had any possibility of doing that, I’d be concerned.

So far, they’ve killed over three thousand people and taken down a really big building in a manner that can’t be repeated. If that’s what they get in a decade of trying to destroy us, they clearly don’t have the ability to do much to us.

Since they can’t destroy us, all they can really do is terrorize us, whether that’s what they want to do or not. If we avoid being destroyed, and refuse to be terrorized, we’ve neutralized them almost completely.

Carl December 9, 2010 2:51 PM

They certainly arent able to destroy us, however they certainly desire to mount attacks at the same or greater scale than 9/11. If they werent being relentlessly pursued, as they are now, they would be attempting to do so.

As they innovate, it’s neccessary for security to stay one step ahead and innovate as well.

I completely agree that it makes the most sense to not give them any ink in the press, I completely disagree that staying one step ahead of them brands us as “terrorized”, and “loosing the battle”, thats nonsense.

Rorschach December 10, 2010 10:56 AM

I don’t claim to be an expert, but from what I’ve heard and read about sniffer dogs is that it’s actually fairly demanding on the dogs. The greater the diversity of scents they’re faced with, the faster they ‘burn out’ and need to take down time. Now consider the sheer number of passengers going through airport security, some of whom will be wearing colognes, or who have eaten pungent foods, or just plain have odor issues, and you get an idea of how rapid the dog turnover would be. I’m not sure it would be feasible for every airport to have enough sniffer dogs to manage typical passenger volume.

hmm December 12, 2010 1:11 AM

Randomly off-topic. I just read the novel “A Most Wanted Man” by John Le Carre, and its good, I would recommend it. But it brings to light one of the problems with Bruce’s mantra of “more investigation and intelligence” that hadn’t occurred to me before. Human intelligence is hard to get. Its not enough to allocate a bunch of money and give the mandate to the right people to go out and find and develop human assets. You also have to somehow keep all of the rest of the myriad hydra heads of government from burning your asset. In short, you need an organization that’s set up in such a way that it can recruit, run and protect these assets without any interference from other branches of government. I wonder if any western nations can still manage this? I believe its a capability worth having.

Edossa Kenea November 14, 2011 4:52 AM

1, tirrerism due to ilitrat of use techinology. Be learn has right of learn.2, tirrerism due to breack international rule of low. You are not tirrerist due to brock you right hot some authority said to you. But authority inforce you is/are tirrerist. 3rd, ilitrate of global comminication made peoplse tirrerist due to data connecation on peoplse and secured of there secrate. And said by iltirate used with out knowlage of global comminication, peoplse tirrerist. But peoplse not tirrerist. Ilitrats are tirrerst. 4, due to brock religion of freedom peolse said tirreris. Give to them freedom. 6, due to brock there individual freedom said tirrerst by dominations or colonialist having positions. But tirrerist with out knowlage on position. Litirate of lead.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.