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The Uses of Terrorism

by J. Orlin Grabbe

When the NSA, FBI, and assorted other agencies appear in the press or before Congress to argue for restrictions in private uses of cryptology, they cite "terrorism" (along with "child pornography" and other alleged menaces) as a major reason.

It's basic mammalian politics: scare the shit out of your audience, and then they will give you what you want.

But actually dealing with real terrorism is another thing: the FBI would much prefer to pick on religious groups, or arrest pseudo-militias of their own creation, or obtain broader wiretapping authority over ordinary American citizens. The fact is, the FBI is much better skilled at getting congressional funding and harassing ordinary Americans than it is at dealing with real terrorists.

The White House approach is not much different. Our President Bill Clinton seems to be flipping a coin to decide whether he will bomb Iraq or whether he will bomb Iran. When he makes up his mind, the nation he chooses will undoubtedly be announced as "responsible" for the bombing of TWA Flight 800. The mechanism is the same: scarce the hell out of the voters, then direct their fear and anger at the enemy you have selected as the target. (The FBI, naturally, can't reach any conclusions about TWA 800 until Bill is ready to move.) And then, in gratitude that Bill has struck at the source of their fear and anger, the electorate will eagerly give him their votes.

What about the country that was bombed? Now, if you were arrested and put in jail for a crime you didn't commit, you would probably develop a resentment against the police and the court system. In the same way, if your relatives were bombed or killed to serve the short-term political needs of a foreign power, you would probably be easily mobilized to strike back at that foreign power.

Bill Clinton was advised to direct a surgical strike at some top Syrian leaders, as a "don't tread on us, either" response to recent Syrian terrorist actions in the U.S. But rather than dealing with the real terrorist threat, Mr. Clinton is planning to use the opportunity to buy himself some votes. This seems destined to broaden the spectrum of attacks on U.S. domestic targets. Hello, Iran. Or is it Iraq?

August 31, 1996
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