The silliness of security alerts.

The silliness of security alerts.

The silliness of security alerts.

A wartime lexicon.
Aug. 6 2004 11:50 AM

Safe Cracking

The silliness of security alerts.

Real protection or just PR?
Real protection or just PR?

I was going to start by saying that the cretinization of public discourse on "security" continues to gather pace, but then I stopped myself. How can cretinization gather pace? Presumably, cretinization is a slowing-down. Anyway, the whole argument, and the whole coverage of it, continues to get even more cowardly and stupid.

It doesn't really matter whether the information about potential assaults on financial institutions in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., is or was "old" or "new." As the "Presidential Daily Brief" of August 2001, now so celebrated in song and legend, chose to phrase it: "Bin Laden associates surveilled our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam as early as 1993, and some members of the Nairobi cell planning the bombings were arrested and deported in 1997." The actual bombings occurred in 1998. So it takes a good deal of optimism to regard any plausible warning or advice as "old news." (Indeed, isn't the term "old news," along with "open-faced sandwich" or the expression "alone together," due for some kind of condemnation as oxymoronic?) On a lesser note, an administration that has recently undergone such hard pounding for "ignoring warnings" will obviously prefer to adopt the policy of Mark Twain's celebrated cat, which once jumped up to sit on a hot stove and would never afterward sit on a cold one.

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But what possible good can it do, on the receipt of such "specific information," to put armed men on the streets and in the subways? Assuming as we must that such high-profile attacks would be conducted by suicide-killers, in what respect do more "visible" measures make any difference, except to alert the potential perpetrators? Usually, the intelligence "community" prefers not to disclose what it knows, lest it tip people off as to how it has found out. Where's the reason, apart from PR, to abandon that useful principle in this case? Wouldn't you rather have the counterterrorism team where you couldn't see it, and nor could the perps? But then, where's the political "bounce" in that?

One consequence of such clumsiness is to license the sinister rumor of a deliberately alarmist political agenda. This fourth-rate paranoia even made it onto the editorial page of the New York Times a few days ago, with Paul Krugman echoing an article from the New Republic that claimed an al-Qaida suspect would be held until his arrest could take away the spotlight from the Democratic Convention. (Quick—can you name the suspect? But then again—what can you remember about the convention? The two scintillating events seem to have canceled each other out.) Krugman has already defended Michael Moore's right to lie for a good cause, but this is taking emulation a little far.

The problem, as it is so often, is with public opinion itself. For some reason, we are all assumed to be demanding assurances. (We are also supposed to want a "memorial" in New York, for a war that has barely started yet, and to agree that random families of random victims should receive public money and also have more say in the deliberations on policy. Why is this? Who demanded it?) Opinion polls fatuously inquire which candidate's program will "make America safer."

You can see the consequences of this idiocy at any airport, any day. The last time I flew, I had to show my driver's license, and my boarding pass, three times. This tactic handily eliminates all those hijackers who have ever tried to board a plane without ID or without bothering to buy a ticket. (At my hometown airport of Washington Dulles, as a recent video has shown, three hijackers who boarded on Sept. 11  had taken the usual precaution of having tickets and ID but had not bothered to change their names from the ones on the FBI "terrorism watch-list.") The whole thing is done largely in order to create an impression of security, and the worst of it is watching your fellow passengers thanking those who pointlessly pat them down and who incidentally make sure that if there is a hijacker aboard, you have been as far as possible robbed of anything with which to defend yourself.

However, it's not very probable that the jihadists will use that precise tactic again, so an immense amount of expensive effort is now being deployed in deliberately looking the wrong way. Whereas, to search every train and ship passenger and every bridge-and-tunnel user would be, as we know, to bring our commerce and society to a halt and save the murderers the trouble of doing so. Meanwhile, the administration is giving a gigantic hostage to fortune in claiming that its policies at home and abroad are "making America safer." It will take only one atrocity to make that boast seem worse than hollow, and this in turn will tempt many liberals and Democrats into demagogy. ("They couldn't make you safer, but I can. … It's time to bring our boys home.") It's difficult to imagine a state of greater vulnerability, both physically and morally, and both at home and overseas. We can bring "our" boys home, but "their" soldiers are already here and in place, and training, and waiting. There will be further outrages and slaughters, all across this country and Europe, as there already are in the countries of Islamic civilization, and the crucial thing will be how we respond, not how we "predict" what is already certain or rehearse our whinings and complaints for when the blow falls.

The only assurance that one can decently demand of the administration and of Congress is the assurance that we are actually at war and that all measures are being taken to achieve victory. To couple this with the demand for personal safety is surely to be self-evidently absurd, not to say pathetic. Just as you don't have to go to Afghanistan or Iraq to be in danger from Islamist bombs and bullets, so you don't have to go there in order to demonstrate a little fortitude. "Safe sex" may now be a platitude, but "safe war" would be the silliest oxymoron of the whole lot.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.