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August 15, 2007

If Anti-Terror Fight Isn't Law Enforcement, Should We Listen to NYPD?
Posted by David Shorr

If there's one thing that hard liners have been very clear about, it's that fighting terrorists with law enforcement is Very Unserious. The crucial thing, supposedly, is to understand that THESE PEOPLE MEAN TO DO US HARM. We're at war, you people, got that? So what should we do with Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat, the new report today from the New York Police Department? From my initial read of the executive summary, Ray Kelly and his colleagues have made an empirical study of the process by which people become terrorists.

But what does NYPD know about terrorists? In a word, a lot. Arguably, according to this July 2005 New Yorker article by William Finnegan, more than the United States Govenment combined. And how did they come to know all this? By doing law enforcement! Yes, methodical, gumshoe, community policing.

Progressives often argue against the War on Terror approach by highlighting what a blunt instrument military force is. That's the negative argument, and it has the added virtue of being true. But I think the positive argument is much more powerful. You stop terrorists by picking up their trail and following it. Not military cordon-and-search by our infantry (God bless 'em), but law enforcement!!!

I think we've got a pretty strong argument, what do you think?


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So if fighting terrorism is a job for the cops, what did you think of Afghanistan? I'm actually in agreement with you that we'd be better off using police methods (with all due constitutional safeguards), but it seems to me that the fundamental mistake of treating terrorism as a military problem and not a police problem was first made with Afghanistan, an invasion heartily endorsed by most liberal Democrats.

Not going to renounce the Afghanistan invasion - exception proving the rule. That was an extraordinary concentration of terrorists in a sanctuary. Moreover, the international community endorsed the American retaliation as an act of self-defense. But as I say, that's the exception; the rule is all these cells that have been discovered and dismantled.

Sorry for the pedantry, but the phrase "the exception that proves the rule" is either based on an seldom-used definition of the word "prove", meaning "to test", as in: "the exception tests the rule", or it's a mistranslation of the original Latin. Cecil Adams has more, if you're interested. The sense in which you're using it, which is: "Yes, there's an exception, but I'm sticking with my damn rule anyway" is the most common usage. It is also bullshit.

Now, to Afghanistan: I don't get the "terrorist sanctuary" thing, to be honest. Sure, I've seen the file footage of keffiyeh-clad men running through obstacle courses. Scary stuff, indeed. But to harm us those guys have to leave Afghanistan, affording us an opportunity to catch and interrogate them. Blowing up the camp where they're "training" doesn't do much except scatter the terrorists you're trying to collect (that, and seriously diminish their ability to work their way through a jungle gym).

And exactly what kind of "terrorist infrastructure" did they have in Afghanistan? Such an impressive "infrastructure" that they had to send guys to the United States to learn to fly a freakin' airplane. Think about that for a second.

I suggest that if you find an "extraordinary concentration" of terrorists, you should watch that place very closely, send in infiltrators and capture and interrogate guys who leave. Practically speaking, do you want your terrorists concentrated, or spread out to hell and back?

As for the larger picture, the real mistake many liberals made was evaluating the merits of the Afghan invasion as if it existed in isolation, as if Bush and Cheny & Co. weren't obviously thinking of it as simply step #1 in an endless war. I think if there had been more opposition to Afghanistan, Iraq might not have happened. The failure was not looking a few steps down the road to see where the Afghan invasion would lead us, despite all the warning signs. And the framing you oppose, the "war" on terror rather than patient and disciplined police action against terror, all that began in Afghanistan.

Politically, this line doesn't work. It's too vulnerable to the response that "anti-terrorism as law enforcement" is what the Clinton administration did, and all it gave us was more terrorism. With respect to the NYPD analysis, which is explicitly directed at "homegrown" or domestic terrorism, the critique that the Bush administration is not emphasizing law enforcement is rebutted by pointing to the things it is doing already -- including the things that helped thwart the terrorist plots discussed by the NYPD report.

The line also steps on the Democrats' critique of the Iraq adventure, which is that it is a diversion from the fight against terrorism of the kind that attacked America on 9/11. The problem with Iraq isn't that we're fighting terrorism there with the wrong tools, it's that we're in Iraq and mostly fighting terrorism by Iraqis against other Iraqis.

Finally, preventive steps against terrorism around the world -- including activities often described as part of "nation-building" -- are often not only far removed from law enforcement but can only be undertaken by the American military. Partly that's because of the kind of activities involved; you can't train West African military units without American soldiers. But it's also partly because the military is the tool we have, a situation created by the last Democratic administration. It is nice to think of America leaping into the fight against terrorism with armies of civilian aid workers and public diplomats, but we don't have them. The institutions of American foreign policy outside the Pentagon and intelligence services were dismantled or allowed to atrophy following the Soviet collapse, and will have to be rebuilt for any of the fine campaign rhetoric about increasing our reliance on diplomacy and other non-military instruments can be given substance. So in addition to being useless politically, the tactic of emphasizing law enforcement rather than the military as our primary weapon against terrorism is irrelevant to many of the things the next President will need to do to make terrorism against this country less likely in the years to come.

I agree with SteveB, and so does this guy:

"People talk about, 'Are you winning?' First, you have to define: What is winning? And I don't mean to be glib about that. Winning in this war on terrorism is having security in the countries we're trying to help that allows for those governments to function and for their people to function.

"Example. Washington, D.C., has crime, but it has a police force that is able to keep that crime below a level at which the normal citizens can go about their daily jobs and the government can function. That's what you're looking for on the war on terrorism, whether it be Iraq, Afghanistan, or anyplace else."--General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff