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Fright and Flight

Last Sunday's Rough Draft:

When you travel in America today you get scrutinized as a possible terrorist. This is despite the fact that you are not a terrorist, don't know any terrorists and wouldn't even know what to do if you were a terrorist. It's a bit like being suspected of wizardry or witchcraft, and having your bags searched for poison toads and eyes of newt. I always want to announce, "I'm not a terrorist and, indeed, don't even have any strong opinions."

The other day I was in another long line of non-terrorists producing their driver's licenses and taking their shoes off and yanking their laptops out and doing all the things that non-terrorists do, without complaint, to prove that they are not even a little bit associated with al Qaeda, or with Saddam, or with North Korea, or even with the French....

Click here to read the entire column.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 13, 2005; 8:31 AM ET
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I thought it was a good one when I read it, but it was kind of tainted by the fact that I just get incredibly annoyed when the media complains about security, especially -too much- security. I expect the general public to react with distain to seemingly inane security measures. And in some sense, the whole system relies on the general citizenry regarding security measures with distain and contempt. When and ordinary person is pissed because some cop hassled them for seeming a little too interested in taking pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge, it's better that they don't know how many times that apparently futile practice has turned up disturbing patterns of probing and information gathering, which otherwise would have gone undetected.

Posted by: jw | June 13, 2005 8:50 AM | Report abuse

I have to disagree with JW. The recent summary of arrests in connection with the war on terror don't indicate a major threat in the U.S. I'm too lazy this morning to research, but I remember 3 or 4 that seemed real--the attempted shoe bomber, the guy who wanted to cut the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge and a couple others. To me, that doesn't sound major.

In the recent Mark Felt episode, someone said that the Weather Underground had done 52 bombings in the 70's, which was why Felt felt he needed to authorize black bag jobs. Do we think the Weather Underground was a real threat, or just a side show.

I think on Sept 11, 2011, we'll look back and say we overreacted to 9-11. The bottom line to me is that we (modern) humans aren't predators, we're herd animals and rely for security against the occasional predator on the herd. Bin-Laden thought destroying the World Trade Center would bring down the economy. Wrong. The damage was less than a year of automobile accidents.

Posted by: BillH | June 13, 2005 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Bill--with all respect, that's exactly what you're expected to think. If the American people continue to feel that terrorist activity is muted and unorganized, that means the law enforcement has succeeded in interrupting terrorist plots before they could advance towards completion. But that success depends of what the general public views as tedious and unneccessary. If Americans think we overreacted to 9-11 in 2011, that will be because there has not been another major terrorist event (or close-call) in the US. The only thing that would make people think otherwise would be another successful or near-successful attack, in which case of course everyone will scream that the government didn't do enough.

Posted by: jw | June 13, 2005 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Of course we overreacted to 9-11; and not only that, we mis-reacted. If we had taken the same energy and resources and applied them to organizing the people of the world against terror by peaceful means, the world could have been transformed. Instead, our actions have increased the amount of suffering and death in the world, including our own young men and women in the prime of their lives. We've brought back torture, decimated the Geneva Convention, and rejected the principles of international justice and peacekeeping.

What do you say, Dreamer?

Posted by: kbertocci | June 13, 2005 9:42 AM | Report abuse

"...organizing the people of the world against terror by peaceful means." So, if we sent the Taliban a fruit basket instead of cruise missiles, then maybe you wouldn't be taking your shoes off in the airport? Besides, if Sean Penn couldn't achieve peace through diplomacy, who could? Yeah, I know I'm being flippant, but let's stop kidding ourselves. The only way to defeat terrorism is by intelligence gathering, global socioeconomic reform, and decicive military action. You can argue that maybe the US hasn't exactly succeeded in some of these areas, but believing that peacefully organizing the people of the world can defeat terrorism is the sort of ambivalence that made 9-11 possible in the first place.

And don't even get me started on the Geneva Convention. Here's an excerpt from the Society for Professional Journalist's guide to the Geneva Conventions: "Combatants who deliberately violate the rules about maintaining a clear separation between combatant and noncombatant groups -- and thus endanger the civilian population -- are no longer protected by the Geneva Convention." So, given this statement, where does an enemy that purposefully targets civilan populations, as well as uses civilians to initate suicide attacks, fall? I'm not saying that there needs to be international standards for the treatment of prisoners, but the Geneva Conventions were written with a conventional war in mind, and are completely ill-suited for determining appropriate treatment for terrorists.

Posted by: jw | June 13, 2005 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for seeking my thoughts, kbertocci.
Yes, I think we overreacted and misreacted to September 11, but I think that's to be expected. That's how it's always been throughout history, and probably how it always will be. Humankind endures similar events over and over again, yet each event is slightly different from the one that came before it and therefore seems unique, worthy of a new set of rules and responses. We are experienced at dealing with these problems, and yet we are not. With hindsight, we may see that we have not reacted optimally. But at the time, when we're caught up in the little box of our immediate experience, we are afraid, and we see a limited set of solutions to the problem. Those at the top must be seen to be doing all they can, even if what they are doing is merely chipping away at the tip of the iceberg. And not everyone will agree on which exact part of that tip should be chipped, and with what tool. The best you can hope for is to "keep your head when those about you are losing theirs."

Posted by: Dreamer | June 13, 2005 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I meant "doesn't need." It's too early for this stuff.

Posted by: jw | June 13, 2005 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I hope everyone saw this story on the relatively paltry number of prosecutions and convictions of terrorists since 9/11:

Posted by: Achenbach | June 13, 2005 10:26 AM | Report abuse

"Combatants who deliberately violate the rules about maintaining a clear separation between combatant and noncombatant groups -- and thus endanger the civilian population -- are no longer protected by the Geneva Convention."

I guess that would exclude the perpetrators of the firebombing of Dresden, the nuclear attacks in Hiroshima and Nakasaki, and the defoliation of Vietnam. So maybe we wouldn't want to enforce that idea too strictly.

The Geneva Conventions provide generally accepted guidelines for humane treatment of prisoners. They are important because prisoners are by definition powerless, and that creates a corrupting environment where everyone tends to forget their respective humanity. The idea of "name, rank and serial number" being all the information you can be asked to provide is similar to the concept of "the right to remain silent" when you are arrested in the U.S. Torture is devastating to its victims but I believe it damages its perpetrators as well, even those of us who just stand by and let it happen. We lose much more than we gain when we abandon our ideals.

Thank you, jw, for a good lead to comprehensive information about the conventions:

Posted by: Anonymous | June 13, 2005 10:47 AM | Report abuse

There's also this ...

At the airport, passengers stand in line for security checks, as do pilots and flight crews. It seems so reassuring, perhaps, that even they get checked. Meanwhile, all manner of other behind-the-scenes folks -- cleaners and baggage handlers and such -- are waved through.

Posted by: Baggins | June 13, 2005 10:51 AM | Report abuse

I'm the first to bring up Dresden, Hiroshima, and Mi Lai (well, pretty much Vietnam in general) whever someone starts spouting self-righteous nonsense about the US in regard to the current conflict. To me, the Geneva Conventions have always had a "wink wink, nudge nudge" quality to them. We now know that secret prisons and clandestine kidnappings are not just the stuff of Robert Ludlum novels, and there's no reason to believe that that sort of thing is unique to this war. What has changed is the proliferation of information, and the increasing transparency of our government's action caused in no small part by the increasing involvement of both mainstream and alternative medias in not just covering the conflict, but becoming a part of it.

Protecting captured combatants is important, not only from a human rights standpoint, but also for the completely pragmatic reason that we don't want to encourage the poor treatment of US prisoners. It's important to remember, however, that there are often two truths. That which the goverment wants the world to see, and that which exists unseen and disavowed. (Cue the Mission: Impossible theme song).

Posted by: jw | June 13, 2005 11:48 AM | Report abuse

JW: It's possible that our security apparatus has disrupted plots by means that don't include arrests and indictments within the US. But it's also true that all of the incentives for politicians and the media have been to emphasize the terrorist threat. Which story is more likely to make the front page of the Post: (1) X [Dem politician] charges administration fails to protect US Y [water supplies, food supplies, chemical plants, nuclear reactors, aviation, container shipments]; (2) bureaucracy screws up anti-terror effort says whistleblower; (3)global warming bigger threat than terror?

We won't know which of us is closer to the truth until another 10 years have passed. Hopefully we're both around.

Re torture: I recommend the Joseph Lelyveld article (
in yesterday's Times mag.

Posted by: BillH | June 13, 2005 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I expect that one day soon we will all be traveling naked. Then the terrorists will really have won. All the present security procedures do is screen out those causal dilettante terrorists. Unfortunately, this philosophy is not limited to airports. Security has permeated everywhere and, sadly, done little but make life more annoying and difficult for all.

Posted by: RD Padouk | June 13, 2005 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Terrorism cannot be defeated because ideas cannot be defeated, cannot be bludgeoned into submission. People can be. Ideas never will be. It's futile -- and disingenous, and dangerous -- for the Shrub and Congress to insist otherwise. Terrorists can be stopped, but the reasons behind their terrorism will remain long after they are dead. And making me take my shoes off every time I go through airport security isn't going to change that.

Posted by: JWM | June 17, 2005 3:04 AM | Report abuse

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