Our Smoke and Mirrors War on Terror
Published on Wednesday, March 6, 2002 by Ted Rall
Nothing Changed After 9-11
Our Smoke and Mirrors War on Terror
by Ted Rall
NEW YORK-September 11th changed everything-at least in the rag trade. "I think there's probably going to be a new sense of humility and a little bit more awareness that fashion doesn't make or break somebody's life," commented a somber John Bartlett, designer of men's wear, explaining his breathtaking decision to display this year's new designs on a mere runway rather than using his trademark postmodern installations. "I wanted to do something very simple...without all the smoke and mirrors."

The militantly inane world of haute couture is unique. In every other aspect of our post-9-11 world, smoke and mirrors still rule.

Airport security remains a farce; between the sleeping security guards, the unplugged machines, and the unlocked doors leading to the tarmac, it's still a lot easier to slip something sharp, pointy or explosive onto a passenger jet in the U.S. than it is in Turkmenistan. Entire sectors of the transportation industry-small "general aviation" planes, trucking, buses, passenger and freight trains-don't even bother to use metal detectors, much less subject customers to searches or annoying questions. The Postal Service's primary effort to safeguard the nation's mails is a rule, instituted after the crash of TWA Flight 800, requiring that packages weighing more than 16 ounces be brought to post offices rather than dropped in boxes. (Heavier packages dropped off in boxes are returned to sender, but not if you drop them in a box in a neighboring Zip code.)

Memo to Osama: Want to mess with the United States? Derail a train full of toxic chemicals as it passes through a densely-populated area-railroad tracks are rarely fenced in. Set off a few tons of TNT at the base of a busy bridge; any fool with a boat should be able to pull that off. Or park a truck bomb on a busy street anywhere in the country; no one will move it unless it's in a no-standing zone.

The future of terrorism, our hapless corporate and political leaders believe, is whatever made headlines last week. Rather than anticipate what might go down in the future, we craft safeguards that only address events that have already happened. The makers of a new $150,000 explosives detector now being marketed to airports claim that their device would have intercepted attempted shoe bomber Richard Reid. Another company, inspired by an incident in which a deranged passenger kicked down a cockpit door, hawks its $18,000 "ThreatDefense" model-if it can stop a 9-mm. bullet, the logic goes, it'll protect you against the drunks in first class.

The trouble is, there won't be any more Richard Reids.

Americans cannot defeat terrorism without addressing its underlying causes: our aggressive, clumsy, bomb-first-ask-questions-later foreign policy; our spectacularly arrogant attitude of cultural and economic expansionism; our unquestioned support of oppressive regimes around the world. Fanatics will always be willing to kill themselves to take on the Great Satan. A nicer and smarter America would deprive those nuts of the widespread financial support they require in order to fund large-scale attacks.

Unfortunately, unless there is a major intellectual breakthrough, we Americans are likely to continue the provocations that got us into such trouble in the first place.

So we'd better learn to live with terrorism-in other words, figure how to minimize the frequency and effectiveness of future attacks. And that means learning to think like terrorists.

Our current version of airline security, which mainly involves laborious and predictable physical searches, is nearly completely pointless. Hiring 30,000 more screeners to perform the same task won't help. Islamist extremists and our own homegrown right-wing militia types aren't going to fly more passenger jets into skyscrapers-at least not for the time being. They'll wait until we've forgotten all about September 11th before attempting a repeat performance.

What would you do if you were in the jihad biz and had limited funding, limited personnel and limited familiarity with your targets? Well, you'd avoid places where security was tight; that's why nothing happened at the Superbowl or Salt Lake City Olympics.

Setting off stolen Russian nukes in lower Manhattan would be theoretically amusing but far too difficult to pull off. In the real world, you'd leave package bombs in trash cans, mail boxes and train stations. You'd get on a bus, leave your bomb in the luggage rack and get off before the thing blew. You'd hijack gasoline trucks from truck stops and drive them into the lobbies of government office buildings. You'd strap explosives under your clothing and walk into a crowded mall the first day of the Christmas shopping season. Or maybe you'd just start shooting on a packed sidewalk.

"Sometimes people act as if it's all gone away," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said two weeks ago. "I do fear the country has not absorbed that the conflict is far from over." Wolfowitz is 100 percent correct about the need for vigilance, but his administration's faux war on terror-dispatching troops to prop up corrupt regimes in the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia while stifling the slightest dissent here in America-will have little effect beyond causing yet more people to hate us. The key to avoiding another September 11th is to understand that there won't be any more September 11ths-until there are.

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled "To Afghanistan and Back," will be published in April.

Copyright 2002 Ted Rall