Call for discussion: Can al-Qaeda destroy America?

An MSNBC story about Atty Gen. Ashcroft's appearance before Congress today reported him saying "argued that no one can, or even should, say exactly where the president’s war powers end because the goal is victory and national survival."

This idea of "National Survival" being at stake strikes me as key in the debate over "preemptive war", USAPA, indefinite detentions and so forth. If you believe that the very survival of our country is at stake, then many things are justifiable. If you don't believe it, many things our government is doing are scary.

Tomeboy and I have just started this discussion/debate on a thread off of his journal, but I'm hoping to invite other opinions, on both sides on the questions:

Can al-Qaeda destroy America?
What does "destroy" mean? (physical, psychological, loss of freedom of action?)
Are there measures of survivability?

Those of us who try to live by either "Live free or die" or "Trust in God, not princes" will have to come to terms with this deep reservoir of fear behind the phrase "Our national survival is at stake!"

Personal note to Tomeboy - I will make a direct response to your comments later, but I was intending to issue a call for discussion even before I got your last reply. Time ran too short for me to do both. - Daniel

Comments

Re: Can al-Qaeda destroy America?

I think it's not out of the question

  • that Al Qaida and affiliates could manage the coordinated detonation of radiological "dirty bombs" in the financial districts of three or four major U.S. cities [1];
  • that the economic consequences of such an event would throw the U.S. into a devastating depression;
  • that the U.S. depression would devastate the economies of the many countries that rely on our trade deficits (us buying more things from them than they buy from us) for revenues.

Even though the direct loss of life might not match the WTC destruction, vastly larger areas of these cities could be made unusable for decades. Perhaps in the wake of 9/11 the financial world has created redundant systems and procedures, such that the unusability of large parts of Manhattan, Chicago, and, say, Dallas would not bring down the economy. I certainly hope and pray that this is the case. If not, however, a successful attack like I describe seems to me likely to bring about within a year or two an economy in which there is little if any money left over to fund public libraries. I'm not an expert, of course, and perhaps I'm exaggerating the danger. As a citizen, however, I insist that whatever administration is in office consider this kind of thing a real enough possibility to warrant prudent action. I do not suggest that this amounts to an automatic endorsement of e.g. the Patriot Act, but I do think it no exaggeration to say that we are in a battle for our present form of existence.

[1] See also "Study Raises Projection For 'Dirty Bomb' Toll" and my journal posting Putting two and two together.

the economic consequences

I'd say ChuckB nailed it, it's not that they could really destry the county, but the panic from what they can do could cause some serious troubles. Remember that one guy that wrapped his house in plastic and tape?

Yes, Al Qaeda is a National Security Threat

(Preface: Daniel and I have been kicking this around on another thread. Here are my thoughts about Al Qaeda's threat to our national security)

They have the capability to cause us death and grief, but not on a nation threatening scale.

Daniel, respectively speaking, I disagree.

From my perspective you are trying to apply an old paradigm to a model that has not yet been defined. Comparing Al Qaeda to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union is not a fair assessment. Your analogy is akin to our war in Vietnam. The tactics of our enemy had changed, but we (our military) didn’t. Ashcroft et al understand this. I hope.

Al Qaeda is chaos incarnate. Havoc is their business, not territorial pursuits per se. And they are a threat on many fronts. First, consider our economy’s sensitivity to terrorism. We are just now emerging from a two year plus downturn since 9/11. This market continues to walk on egg shells today.

There is also the psychological dimension to this war that I consider a threat. Our nation’s collective psyche has been scarred. Severely. A policy of acquiescence, or acceptance of hit and run terrorism exacerbates this condition. The PA is proactive, as is our war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Alleged civil rights abuses notwithstanding, the PA represents one of many preemptive tools employed by our government to protect us. I want this and so do most other Americans. (hence my polling data).

Lastly, I don't subscribe to a "casualty criteria" to establish a bonifide national security threat. I don’t live in New York, but I wonder if there is a sense among the locals of playing Russian roulette? What subway, train station or building will be the next target? Could we surmise that their definition of national security may differ from others?

I would also, respectively of course, submit that your designation of New York and Washington as the only hot spots for future terrorism is a bit naïve. It think it was Sun Tzu that said “Never underestimate your opponent.� Anyway, all of the above constitute our nation’s security. One life or many, if it is on our soil and carried through by our enemy it is a national security issue. Do we really want to assess this issue based upon what one may consider a meaningful body count? I shudder to think of the impact on my life of losing just two Americans; my daughter and wife. Israel understands this and we should too.

Daniel, again, this is a war of will. Al Qaeda doesn’t seek to occupy this country, only to break its resolve. Conceding that hit and run terrorist actions, eg 9/11, are not “nation threatening� and must somehow be accepted as a way of life, is not only wrong but self defeating.

I want all Al Qaeda destroyed. I want it done with dispatch, using all available means necessary and completed as soon as possible. You too should want the same as the alleged constitutional liberties that are now threatened are a direct result of Al Qaeda. The sooner they are dealt with, the sooner we move on to a post PA nation.

As for Chechnya. Russia is cash strapped. Severely cash strapped. They cannot sustain a war in Chechnya, if so, Putin would have moved in long ago. Taking your analogy of Russia one step further. How many terrorist attacks did the old Soviet Union sustain from disgruntled satellites, or from those same Chechnyans pre-1990? What about China, North Korea, Cuba today? Perhaps the terrorism in modern day Russia is a direct result of the new civil liberties afforded to their citizens?

OOOPS!!!!!

Tomeboy and I have just started this discussion/debate on a thread off of his journal, but I'm hoping to invite other opinions, on both sides on the questions:

Apologies Daniel. I skipped right over this.

Maybe there is some truth to right wingers and knee jerk reactions ; )

I'll zip it now.

a wolf among many

I don't think al Quaeda can bring down the US, but then I don't think 9/11 rests solely on their shoulders either. We are still in a Cold War with China which is partially being played out with North Korea. We are in a cultural Cold War with the Middle East and even within our own country with an increase of immigration and a decrease of assimilation. None of these individually are beyond our ability to handle, even collectively I think we can handle them as long as we are honest about their existence.

doubts

I think that AQ can cause us much grievous harm, as they've already done in 9/11. I also think they've learned how to hit us where we hate to be hit: in the economy. Realistically, they need to only strike once every few years to cause a lot of ripple effects in our economy. Take out one jet next year, dirty bomb the next, etc.

Whatever "destroy" means, they're probably hoping we'll destroy ourselves with:

  • our insane rush to "wipe them out" when we can't even determine who they are.
  • Make us so paranoid that we attack other countries with no provocation (Iraq)
  • bully our friends and intimidate all the rest (Europe, U.N.)
  • destroy our civil freedoms (Patriot Act, Bush's insistence that he can commit war crimes)
  • and forget where the real terrorists are (Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia).

I also think that they're hoping Bush wins the election this fall. Now how's that for a flame-war starter?

Re:Yes, Al Qaeda is a National Security Threat

Before I dive into opinion, I have what I think is a factual correction. You wrote:"As for Chechnya. Russia is cash strapped. Severely cash strapped. They cannot sustain a war in Chechnya, if so, Putin would have moved in long ago."According to the June 9th Moscow Times, there are currently 70,000 Federal Troops in Chechnya. Putin "went back in" back in 1999, and Russia has continued to maintain significant levels of troops since.As far as the Chechnens using their "new civil liberties" to commit terror, the 2003 US Human Rights report on Russia has this to say:"Although the Government generally respected the human rights of its citizens in some areas, its human rights record worsened in a few areas. The Government's record remained poor in the continuing struggle with separatists in Chechnya, where federal security forces demonstrated little respect for basic human rights. There were credible reports of serious violations, including numerous reports of unlawful killings, and of abuse of civilians by both the Government and Chechen fighters in the Chechen conflict. There were reports of both government and rebel involvement in politically motivated disappearances in Chechnya. Parliamentary elections held on December 7 failed to meet international standards, although the voting process was technically well run. Criminal charges and threats of arrest or actual arrest against major financial supporters of opposition parties, and seizure of party materials from opposition parties, undermined the parties' ability to compete.There were credible reports that law enforcement personnel frequently engaged in torture, violence, and other brutal or humiliating treatment and often did so with impunity. Hazing in the armed forces remained a problem. Prison conditions continued to be extremely harsh and frequently life-threatening. Arbitrary arrest and lengthy pretrial detention, while significantly reduced by a new Code of Criminal Procedure, remained problems, as did police corruption. Although there were some improvements, assessments of the progress made in implementing the significant reforms in criminal procedures code enacted in 2002 were mixed at year's end. Government protection for judges from threats by organized criminal defendants was inadequate, and a series of alleged espionage cases continued during the year and caused continued concerns regarding the lack of due process and the influence of the FSB in court cases. Authorities continued to infringe on citizens' privacy rights."I admit have no good answers about China, North Korea or Cuba, other than to suggest that perhaps their official media covers up terror events. But I have no proof.------------------------On to the opinion front. I made the comparison to WWII and the Cold War on our level of National Danger in part because the President did so as well in a speech to the Air Force Academy. While he said this was a war that would be fought differently, he stated that the nature of the threat to our nation from al-Qaeda was as grave as that from either the Soviets or the Nazis.People in the Administration, including FBI Director Mueller and National Security Advisor Condaleeza Rice have stated that terrorists WILL strike again, even with the new legal regime in place. Do you accuse them of "Conceding that hit and run terrorist actions, eg 9/11, are not “nation threatening� and must somehow be accepted as a way of life, is not only wrong but self defeating?"There are a number of approaches to fighting terrorism and minimizing it's impact. I think we should try ones that don't impact our traditional liberities and values first. There is a stack of recommendations on security measures from independent commissions, the General Accounting Office and others. Many of those recommendations, like vastly greater oversight of cargo flights and shipping containers remained undone to this day.Finally, I have to take respectful issue with one other statement you made"I want all Al Qaeda destroyed. I want it done with dispatch, using all available means necessary and completed as soon as possible. You too should want the same as the alleged constitutional liberties that are now threatened are a direct result of Al Qaeda. The sooner they are dealt with, the sooner we move on to a post PA nation. "I want al-Qaeda gone as much as anybody, but we won't get there by wasting our resources on mass surveillence programs that lead to false positives and wars on countries that have little, if anything, with al-Qaeda. Even military affiliated scholars have concluded that Iraq was a distraction, not a part of the War on Terror.As for civil liberties, the current measures ARE NOT a direct result of Al Qaeda. Many of the measures in the USAPA were proposed by Clinton and Reno back in 1996 and were RIGHTLY rejected by a Republican Congress. This time around, DOJ cynically brought back their laundry list and got it slammed through Congress in a time of national hysteria before ANY analyis of what was actually needed, post 9/11.Our administration had a variety of choices of dealing al-Qaeda, none of which included "doing nothing." The actions they chose, including the USAPA and our war in Iraq, were not caused by al-Qaeda, though I do believe they aided al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts.

Re:doubts

First, I want to thank the five of you for joining this dicussion.In response to ChuckB's posting, there's also a useful document, with maps about the possibility of "dirty bomb" attacks at the FAS web site. They conclude the threat is real, but that massive casualities would not result at first.I think Madcow is right on both his points 1) that al-Qaeda can make our lives miserable, but only we can destroy ourselves and 2) If al-Qaeda (or at least bin Laden) is pulling for the President to be reelected because Bush is following the "clash of civilizations" script fairly well and lieutenants such as Gen. Boykin are following it exactly. I DON'T know whether Kerry will do a better job, but he could hardly do worse.Everything people have written so far is that our fear is what will do us in, and we can't use a missile or gun on that.

Re:doubts

In response to ChuckB's posting, there's also a useful document, with maps about the possibility of "dirty bomb" attacks at the FAS web site. They conclude the threat is real, but that massive casualities would not result at first.

Just to clarify in response to Blake & Daniel, I am not suggesting that fear is what will destroy the nation. I am suggesting that the real economic consequences from unavailability or destruction of certain areas that have an extremely high cybernetic value or density, as well as the cascading consequences of those consequences (the ripple effects mentioned by madcow) would be the ultimate cause of most of the problems. There would be a real, objective basis for fear under those circumstances: fear of losing one's job, income, retirement savings. Fear of loss of value of the currency and of one's securities. Fear of hard, crashing economic depression. Such fear would be entirely rational under the circumstances I imagine. Certainly, I hope and pray that I'm wrong. In any case, I don't believe that Americans would respond to such attacks in blind panic.

Thanks to Daniel for linking to the FAS document on dirty bombs. My quick perusal and in-page search of the document indicates that they do not deal with the possible economic consequences of such an attack.

Re:doubts

I also think that they're hoping Bush wins the election this fall. Now how's that for a flame-war starter?

I don't know about flames, but I would love to hear your reasoning on this.

Re:Yes, Al Qaeda is a National Security Threat

Daniel - Just a couple quick points here.

I won't contend your figure of 70,000 troups. But the other side of this story is that nearly 10,000 of these troups have been killed since 1999. ("No Way Out" Time 10/13/2003) In other words, they may be doing more standing than shooting.

Do you accuse them (Mueller and Rice) of "Conceding that hit and run terrorist actions, eg 9/11, are not “nation threatening� and must somehow be accepted as a way of life, is not only wrong but self defeating?"

Only if they elected not to support preemptive measures to stop this.

I want al-Qaeda gone as much as anybody, but we won't get there by wasting our resources on mass surveillence programs that lead to false positives and wars on countries that have little, if anything, with al-Qaeda.

All I can say here is, again, I disagree. In terms of national defense, a false positive is better than a false negative though neither is obviously desirable. And I'm not conceding the former ; )

One question Daniel. If just one potential terrorist was successfully thwarted by using PA215, would this justify, for you, it's place as having served its intended goal?

(The matter at hand aside. I do respect your thoughts here Daniel. Good discussion.)

As usual, depends

Since Atty Gen. Ashcroft says that 215 HAS NEVER BEEN used, it would be really tempting to do as he does and say "I won't answer hypotheticals" as he did before the Senate Judiciary committee this week.However, I have more respect for you than that.If 215 ever does get used and does stop a MAJOR terror attack, then perhaps it would be worth it -- IF NO OTHER TOOLS were already at hand, which I suspect they are.However, if 215 winds up snagging people whose "terrorist act" is running a "die america die" web discussion board AND results in hundreds of supenoas unrelated to terrorism, then no, it wouldn't be worth it.Really, though, there could be a place for 215 like powers if the section was altered to 1) could only be used for the SOLE purpose of obtaining records on an actual suspect in a terror investigation and 2) provided an explicit exemption for library records and bookstore sales. Given the FBI's documented history of wasting surveillence resources on harmless Americans such as Albert Einstein, Lucille Ball and others, I don't think that is so much to ask.I also continue to believe that it's crazy that general business records, POTENTIALLY including library records are open to the gov't, while they are DISALLOWED from checking gun sales records and the National Instant Background gun check system to see if terror suspects have bought guns.

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