Several bloggers at The Atlantic are piling on about this egregiously wrong-headed post by Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, in which she speculates that the recent bombing and shootings in Norway prove how dangerous it would be to cut defense spending, even a little, because jihadi terrorists are hiding under every bush!
This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists….
Some irresponsible lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — I will point the finger at Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and yet backed the Gang of Six scheme to cut $800 billion from defense — would have us believe that enormous defense cuts would not affect our national security. Obama would have us believe that al-Qaeda is almost caput and that we can wrap up things in Afghanistan. All of these are rationalizations for doing something very rash, namely curbing our ability to defend the United States and our allies in a very dangerous world.
It now looks likely that the attacks were actually carried out by right-wing Christians, not Islamic jihadists. Liberals, of course, are having fun putting on their “I’m a serious adult” faces and reprimanding Rubin, who, as James Fallows notes, has written four more blog posts, but has not found time to issue an update or correction.
But in fact these bloggers are concentrating on the wrong aspect of Rubin’s worldview. Is she an Islamophobe who sees jihadists where none exist? Sure. But much more importantly, she’s also wrong, fundamentally wrong, in a very specific and Cheneyesque way, about the correlation between defense spending and terrorism. The beauty of terrorism, from the point of view of disgruntled assholes with intolerant philosophies of whatever stripe, is that it’s nearly impossible to counter it by spending a lot of money on planes and tanks.
And contrary to neoliberal assertions, it’s fairly difficult to counter it with massive spending on intelligence and investigation, either. Each additional dollar spent on intelligence, beyond a certain level, gets you very diminished returns. That’s partly because there’s simply so much potential for fraud, waste, and abuse in any agency whose activities are conducted mostly in secret, partly because agencies engage in turf wars (leading to redundancy), partly because intelligence agencies aren’t nearly as good at their job as they’d like you to believe, and partly because once the money is in place, there’s tremendous intra-agency pressure to hold onto it, which can lead to results inflation or even to an agency actually creating terrorist plots where none existed before. (This latter method can lead to convictions, if you can find a sympathetic enough jury.)
Ultimately, of course, nothing will make you “safe” from terrorism. In a world where people are free to travel and free to assemble and free to advocate for dangerous ideas, there will always be terrorist plots. In a world where guns and explosives are readily available to nearly anyone who wants them, there will always be terrorist attacks. These are the costs of freedom. You know who’s not worried about terrorists? North Koreans.
There will always be terrorist attacks, and there will always be attacks that catch us by surprise. This is not a reason to throw up our hands in despair, to give up on the kind of real police work that has frequently stopped terrorists before they could act or our excellent courts which have forced many terrorists to answer for their crimes. But it should give us pause, when carnival preachers like Jennifer Rubin use the latest headlines to bolster their pitch, asking for more money and more of our civil liberties and thundering from a rotten pulpit about the many-headed hydra of international jihadism.