Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Losing the War on Terror

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 11, 2002 --  

Yesterday's announcement of a foiled plot to detonate a radioactive "dirty bomb" has been hailed as a great victory in the War on Terror. On the contrary, it could prove to be the beginning of America's defeat.

Abdullah al-Muhajir, an American citizen born as Jose Padilla, now sits in a military cell in South Carolina, having been denied access to this week's grand jury hearing against him. Fearing that he didn't have enough evidence to charge him with a crime, President Bush declared him an enemy combatant at the last minute, instantly cutting off access to the American justice system guaranteed by the Constitution. Current plans are to hold him indefinitely without trial for the duration of the undeclared War on Terrorism, which could be for the remainder of Padilla's life.1

Government defenders argue that Americans held as enemy combatants can still file a writ of habeas corpus to challenge the legality of their detention. This could prove impossible, however, for Americans like Yasser Esam Hamdi, the American-born Saudi who was transferred from camp X-Ray to a Virginia naval base, and has since been denied access to a lawyer, despite the pleas of the public defender's office, and the order of a federal judge.2,3 How exactly is an American supposed to file a writ of habeas corpus while kept in a cage without access to a lawyer?

The legality of detaining Americans as enemy combatants without trial stems from a 1942 Supreme Court Decision, issued against saboteurs working for Germany during World War II.4 This morally questionable ruling was made at a time of similar national fear. Germany had formally declared war on the United States, and Americans were naturally afraid that the seemingly unstoppable Nazi war machine would eventually reach their shores.

But this is where the comparison runs into trouble. The War on Terror is absolutely not like World War II. During that war, the Nazis nearly succeeded in exterminating an entire race of people in Europe and managed to kill tens of millions in Soviet-ruled territories. They possessed a brutally efficient killing machine, and there was little reason to believe that they wouldn't have directed this efficiency against America, given half a chance.

On the contrary, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have not demonstrated anything close to this level of effectiveness. Indeed, it is truly striking just how incompetent some of the operatives have proven.

Richard Reid, for example, was a mentally unstable drifter who failed in blowing a hole in a plane because he was dumb enough to think a lighter could be used to ignite blasting cord. Zacarias Moussaoui, one of last falls' suspected plotters, was so incompetent and reckless that he nearly tipped off flight instructors to the plan. And Jose Padilla is reportedly a former gang thug and petty criminal who had shown no signs of being able to pull off a sophisticated plot. Reports that such a marginal figure had direct contact with senior al-Qaeda official Abu Zubaida5 suggests a severe dearth of capable people in the organization.

Although last fall's attacks were brutally effective, the success was largely dumb luck. Osama bin Laden himself noted on video last fall that he did not anticipate that the towers would collapse.

Given the incompetence of those trying to attack America, and the increased vigilance of Americans, it is doubtful that there will be frequent successes in the future. And even if plotters could somehow manage to destroy another World Trade Center this year, the consequences to the nation as a whole would not be unbearable. Less than four thousand people lost their lives in the attacks last September. As terrible as this is, it is not significant when compared to the 2.4 million Americans who died from other causes in 2000.6

Not only is the risk to the nation not great, but the risk to individuals is small, as well. The year 2000 was fairly typical for deaths. Over 93,000 Americans died that year due to accidents.7 This is over 20 times greater than the number killed in the attacks on September 11. Even the number of people murdered in 2000 -- 16,137 -- is over four times greater than those killed by terrorism last year.8 Simply put, Americans' odds of being killed by terrorists are so low that it's not even worth thinking about.

If a cold-hearted computer were running the country instead of politicians, it would likely ignore the threat of terrorism, calculating it to be an insignificant issue not worth the trouble of action. In the world of human fear and emotion, however, things just don't work that way. Those who hate America have succeeded in creating unnecessary fear in its population, and goading its president into taking self-destructive actions to fight their incompetent foot soldiers.

President Bush has chosen to brush aside the rule of law and Americans' most cherished civil liberties to further an unnecessary War on Terror. This is about the most self-destructive self-betrayal that a terrorist could ever hope to inspire. If the country continues on this path, then the terrorists will have no need to plan more attacks. America will have given the terrorists victory by its own hand.

Related Web Columns:
Waiting for Doomsday, March 5, 2002
Shameful Comparisons, November 26, 2001
Irrational Destruction
Air Safety in the Terrorist Age
, November 13, 2001

1. The Washington Post, 'Dirty Bomb' Plot Uncovered, U.S. Says, June 11, 2002
2. The Virginian-Pilot, Defender wants meeting with locally held Taliban, April 27, 2002
3. The New York Times, Legal Questions on U.S. Action in Bomb Case, June 11, 2002
4. Ibid.
5. The Washington Post, ibid.
6. Center for Disease Control, Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2000, Center for Disease Control, October 19, 2001
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.