Monday, February 1, 2010

Terrorism and Reducing the Deficit

Terrorism and reducing the deficit

The war on terrorism is very different from what wars used to be. In past wars you could follow the two sides on a map. The side that took away territory from the other side was the winner. But the Irish Republican Army was not out to take away territory from England or from the Protestants in Ulster; in Palestine before 1948, the Irgun did not try to acquire territory. It wanted to establish a Jewish state. Similarly, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are not interested in occupying US territory. Terrorism does not aim at conquering territory.

Instead, terrorism is a form of psychological warfare. It aims at affecting the enemy's state of mind by instilling terror. An enemy afraid is thought to be less likely to resist. Psychological warfare has often been employed in conventional warfare. Examples are the German bombings of London in 1940, and the methodical destruction of German cities by allied airplanes during World War II. The goal of these attacks was to frighten and demoralize the population of England and Germany. There is more than one scholar these days who believes that these tactics had the opposite effect. Both the British and the Germans rallied around their government and their armies when their homes and workplaces were destroyed by bombs and many friends and family members killed.

But terrorism, psychological warfare has other, more roundabout and much more damaging effects. The attacks of 9/11 have sucked us into two wars with unclear results which have been very long and terribly expensive. The cost of the wars has left us unable to take care of ourselves at home, to finance schools for the next generation, to provide food and shelter for the unemployed. It has left more than 40 million people without health insurance and it has not left us with any money to fight global warming.

Even worse, terrorism has made it impossible for us to think rationally about government policy and how to spend our resources. President Obama is making noises about reining in government spending but defense spending will not be restricted; it is sacrosanct. As long as we are at war in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the military will get more than $ 600 million a year for any project they or Congress want. While ordinary soldiers and their families live under straightened conditions, the Pentagon spends billions and billions and nobody is even prepared to ask whether some of those millions might be wasted. There are repeated news reports of millions of dollars going missing in the Defense Department without anybody knowing what happened to them, but no one pays any attention to those stories.

Chalk up a victory for Osama bin Laden. He has us so scared, we can't think straight. We waste money on defense and then are unable to help our citizens in an economic crisis or their children whom we cannot educate properly.

The president is promising to make us safer and that's great. But unless we manage to reconsider how we spend our money and don't have our expenditures dictated by Al Qaeda, they win. The Christmas bombing of a Northwest airliner failed to come off and that was excellent for the people on that airplane and their families. But from the point of view of the terrorists that attempted bombing was as effective as one that succeeded. Even a failed bombing scares everybody so much they stop thinking and give all their money to the military while Americans go hungry, or sleep in in cars, or can't afford to see a doctor.

The unwillingness to even look at defense expenditures shows how rattled we are. So far the terrorists are winning.