Over the weekend authorities arrested four men for plotting to cause a significant explosion at John F. Kennedy airport in New York City. On Monday, the congressional recess will end, and members of Congress will be back in Washington. Predictably, some of them will express some stupid conclusions about what the JFK incident means. Here is a short list of what we're bound to hear.
- "We need to throw more money at the problem." One of the
innovations in this alleged plot is that the terrorists were going
to go after the airport instead of the airplanes. Specifically,
they intended to attack the pipelines that ferry fuel to one of the
world's busiest airports. Without a doubt, some in Congress will
want to hold hearings on pipeline safety and then create another
cash-cow homeland-security grant to upgrade security.
The "danger du jour" approach to protecting the homeland could not be more wrongheaded. After the Madrid and London bombings, Congress wanted to throw billions more toward homeland-security grants. This penchant for chasing the latest threat makes no sense. The United States is a vast and populous nation with an infinite number of vulnerabilities. If Congress wants to spend billions of dollars to eliminate one of these vulnerabilities, then there will be infinity minus one.
The most effective way to counter terrorism is to find the terrorists before they strike. Since the attacks of 9/11, U.S. law enforcement has broken up at least 16 potential terrorist plots inside country, counting this latest one. Continued emphasis on law enforcement and intelligence that uncover and interdict schemes before they can be carried out is the cost-effective way to stop terrorist attacks.
- "Look for needles in haystacks." Terrorists are a miniscule
percentage of any group. Despite that fact, some members of
Congress persist in thinking that fighting terrorism is about
excluding, persecuting, or scrutinizing one group of people or
another. They have no problem with defaming religions; keeping
foreign students from coming here to study; trying to kill the
visa-waiver program that allows grandmas to attend their
grandchildren's weddings; and inspecting every package shipped to
America. Their way of keeping us safe hamstrings the economy and
makes America hated around the world, while offering scant prospect
of catching a terrorist.
Screening, profiling, and banning vast numbers of people and goods is a grotesquely inefficient to way to find terrorists, spending a lot of time and energy on the 99 percent of the population that is not the problem. The way to find terrorists is to go looking for them, not to stand around checking passports. That means recruiting informants, wiretapping the conversations of unsavory people, reading their mail, and rifling through their desks. These are all things that can be done legally. Congress should let law-enforcement agencies do their job, stop trying to undermine the Patriot Act and other counterterrorism tools, and quit wasting taxpayer money on measures that don't make us any safer.
- "Stop calling it a war." There are still members of Congress
who persist in denying that America is at war. They dismiss the
notion that we should, or even could, be at war with terrorists.
Terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy, they say; it is not a
traditional war with states, armies, and objectives. Dealing with
terrorists, they insist, is a matter for law enforcement,
diplomats, and social workers. These are irrelevant objections that
have nothing to do with the key characteristic that defines a war:
namely, a competition between two determined foes for a political
end that employs violence or the threat of violence. It does not
matter that there is no direct link between the plots to bomb JFK,
Bali, London, Madrid, Iraq, and the Twin Towers. All these events
were perpetrated by men with common cause to silence the voices of
freedom and justice.
The most important lesson from these arrests is rather straightforward. First and most important, let's acknowledge that there is a war on terror - one there is no hiding from. There are people out there who are trying to kill us and destroy our way of life, and we are trying to stop them. That's a war. And it's going to be a long war. While much has done much to frustrate the designs of the terrorists, it's going to take more time to destroy the capacity of these groups to turn terrorism into a transnational, cooperative enterprise.
James Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation and coauthor of "Winning the Long War: Lessons From the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom".
First appeared in National Review online