Why the current war on terrorism won't get the job done.

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Jan. 8 2002 1:45 PM

Man in the Arab Street

Richard Reid gets no respect. The aspiring shoe-bomber's fellow passengers say he seemed like an oddball from the get-go, and his fellow radical Muslims aren't rushing to his defense. "The guy doesn't look like a genius," observed Sheik Abu Hamza al-Masrik, who runs an inflammatory London mosque that Reid may have attended. Reid, Hamza marvels, "didn't even have a lighter. He tried to light the thing with a match."

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I think Reid deserves to be taken more seriously—not as a first-rate terrorist, maybe, but as a sign that the war on terrorism, as it's now being conducted, isn't going to get the job done. Reid is also a kind of rebuttal to hawk triumphalists who, since the victory in Afghanistan, have belittled those who either opposed the war outright or (like me) didn't quite oppose it but expressed grave doubts about its cost-benefit ratio.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

It's hard to deny that the war has been a success in the short run. It may have disrupted al-Qaida so severely as to buy us two or three years of breathing space. (And certainly I didn't have a better plan for buying breathing space.) But whether the war proves a long-term success depends on how we use the breathing space. Here I think the hawk triumphalists are giving us the wrong prescription: more wars, plus tighter policing, plus little else. And Reid illustrates my point.

The hawk triumphalists—the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, and so on—have ridiculed dovish concerns about how the "Arab Street" would react to the war. Once the Taliban started to fold, after all, the street got quieter. Krauthammer asks, "Where are the seething masses rising up against America and its nominal allies from Egypt to Pakistan? Nowhere to be seen." The masses may still hate us, but now they are filled with "fear and deep respect for American power."

It's true that, with victory coming sooner than just about anyone (including Krauthammer) predicted, street demonstrations died young. Regimes weren't toppled. But my main concern was never about regimes being toppled. My concern was—and is—about what may be the scariest trend in the world: Thanks to technological evolution, man-in-the-street rage, even if it doesn't assume regime-toppling form, is increasingly lethal. Very small groups of people—including groups of one—can take a real toll on the national psyche.

Reid, though no James Bond, came alarmingly close to becoming Exhibit A. We still don't know the details about him. There is some evidence that he was in al-Qaida's orbit, and he may have even spent a little time at a training camp in Afghanistan. But most of his radicalization seems to have come elsewhere—in prison, in European mosques, in Pakistan, and probably on the Internet. And, as for his munitions: According to CNN, Reid told investigators that he got the recipe for his bomb on the Internet and bought the ingredients from a man in Amsterdam for $1,500. Even if he's lying to protect accomplices, these ingredients are indeed something that an enterprising radical could get without being part of a major terrorist network.

In sum: Richard Reid-esque terrorists don't need anything that a military assault on Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else can deprive them of—no government sponsor, no fixed, physical training camps. Meanwhile, they may grow more vehement, and more numerous, in response to a military assault. The question isn't just, as Krauthammer would have it, whether war makes millions of anti-American Muslims pretty mad—mad enough to attend a street demonstration. The question is whether it makes hundreds of anti-American Muslims really mad—mad enough to blow themselves up.

I don't know the answer to that question—and maybe my conjectured answers are too gloomy. But the question is definitely important, and the hawk triumphalists, by and large, show no awareness of it. They may be right that military victory cowed the average Islamic America-hater into silence, but it isn't the average Islamic America-hater that flies an airplane into a building.

The assumption governing President Bush's anti-terrorism policy seems to be that what war won't solve, tighter policing will. In keeping with this mind-set, the reaction to Reid has focused on airport security: What can we do to keep future shoe-bombers from blowing up airplanes?

The correct answer: It doesn't matter. Suppose we tighten things up so that no one can ever again get through airport screening with enough explosives to blow a hole in an airplane. What sorts of options would a Richard Reid still have? Well, he could take a bomb 10 times as powerful, put it in carry-on luggage, and detonate it while waiting in line for airport screening. That would have roughly the same death toll, roughly the same psychological effect and—in economic terms—roughly the same effect on air travel. Or, instead of an airport, the bomber could choose a train station, or a mall at Christmastime, or whatever.