The handwringing about the would-be Christmas Day airplane bomber and the politicians’ tiresome declarations that it will never happen again miss the point: As long as the U.S. government pursues its imperial program of invasion, regime change, occupation, and sponsorship of corrupt governments in the Muslim world, Americans will be targets for avengers. This does not excuse the killing of innocents — it merely points out an inevitable chain of events.
It’s either foreign intervention and retaliatory terrorism or nonintervention and security. There’s no third way.
We can’t eat our cake and have it too. Every empire has reaped a terrorist whirlwind. “Terror” is the tactic that the weak use against the strong. The U.S. government unleashes the most powerful “conventional” weapons known to man, including pilotless killer drones operated like videogames thousands of miles away. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab sewed an explosive into his underwear and ended up burning himself.
It is disgraceful that the choice between terrorism and security is rarely publicly discussed in terms of the choice between American imperialism and nonintervention. The empire is treated as a given — even by most so-called progressives — as though it were ordained by history. The American people are expected to believe that the very existence of their society depends on the U.S. government’s policing the globe and using whatever violence it deems appropriate (that is, whenever things do not suit the interests of U.S. policymakers and their economic partners in the “private” sector).
But this picture is precisely upside down. It is the imperial program and the inevitable “war on terror” that threatens Americans’ way of life — not to mention the very lives of people in the lands that “our” government tramples. Government in the United States has long regarded the liberties of Americans as inconveniences standing in the way of bigger, nobler projects. Since the attacks of September 11 — not a bolt from the blue but a roughly predictable consequence of U.S. foreign intervention — the usurpations have accelerated. The “war on terror” functions like a blank check both to justify curtailment of particular freedoms (such as freedom from surveillance) and to instill an embarrassing submissiveness in a people whose predecessors rebelled against similar oppression. Imagine the first few generations of Americans letting themselves be treated the way we are treated at airports. “You may not leave your seat beginning one hour before landing.” “Oh, okay. Whatever you say, dear leader, as long as you protect me.” When the TSA begins requiring passengers effectively to strip in front of the newest inspection devices, who will raise a word in protest?
The sad irony is that none of these measures — and nothing even more severe — will make us safer. What we call terrorism will always be cheap, flexible, and at least one step ahead of the plodding, clueless authorities. Al-Qaeda is not an organization. It’s an idea and an open-ended set of tactics. Clear it out of Afghanistan — and it appears in Pakistan or Yemen or New Jersey. When you step back and take a broader view, the U.S. government looks like a big, pathetic, stupid giant trying to catch a pesky, clever mouse.
The terrorists’ advantage lies in the fact that bureaucracies are institutionally stupid. Do we really need more proof after the Christmas Day incident? Just as the SEC couldn’t see Bernie Madoff’s fraudulent activities even when handed reams of evidence, so the vaunted “national security apparatus” — for which Americans are compelled to pay hundreds of billions of dollars every year — couldn’t stop a kid from Nigeria wearing explosive briefs from getting on a plane, despite warnings from his own father as well as other solid information.
The “protection” forced on us by the U.S. government is an outright fraud. It can never deliver on its promise to keep us safe because big organizations like the Department of Homeland Security (!) are too riven by interagency rivalries, informational distortions, and hierarchical tone-deafness to work effectively. (The same is true for businesses that grow large because of anti-competitive government privileges.) Letting private companies protect themselves at their own expense would have to work better.
Does this mean we must remain vulnerable? No. We’ll find a reasonable degree of safety when America comes home.