Wednesday, January 13, 2010

24 and the War On Terror

While 24 spent much of it's last season confusing it's terror drenched fantasy with the real world, there seems to be an unrelenting persistence of fear from those in the real world whose perceptions of terror seem to stem straight from the television set.

I don't intend for this post to be long, but there's a lot that needs to be said, both about 24, which failed to make my top ten list for the decade, and about the real world reaction to terrorism. What's blown my mind is the sheer volume of fear I've heard the past few weeks over the radio, tv, and internet. My initial reaction when I heard of the botched attack was, 1- yet another incompetent terrorist, 2- yet another example of government incompetence, and 3- yet another example of individual's acting courageously. At no point did I feel as though I should be more concerned or more worried than I'd been.

The terrorists of 24 are truly frightening. In season 4, a group of radical Islamic terrorists blew up a train, kidnapped the secretary of defense, hijacked the internet, melted down nuclear power plants, shot down Air Force One, and nearly succeeded at firing a nuclear missile at Los Angeles ... all in one day. In season 6, there were terrorist attacks in numerous American cities and a nuclear bomb was set off in Valencia California. And in season 7, a small armed group of African war criminals invades the White House and holds the President hostage. Seasons 6 and 7 also featured a ridiculous debate over civil rights, torture, and anti-terrorism tactics. It was a debate relevant to our reality in dealing with terrorism, but seemed almost trite in a world where so many monstrous things had happened. The amazing thing about 24-world wasn't that it took so long for Jack Bauer to face a Congressional inquest, but that democratic institutions and civil liberties had survived at all.

And it's this world of fantasy that many supporters of drastic action in regards to terrorism actually reside. I've pointed out before that plot-wide, many of the latter seasons of 24 faced the problem of "terrorists with unlimited funds." The amount of money required to carry out all the attacks of season 4 in particular would have been astronomical. If real world terrorists had access to such fortunes- and if they actually had the ability maneuver such funds through worldwide financial institutions- then they might begin to approach the level of 24-world terrorists. But in the real world, the lack of attacks on American soil and the failed attacks on air lines should be seen as an indication of the reach and power of Al-Queda and similar organizations. As devastating as 9-11 was, it was not an attack that required particularly large sums of money or a very intricate coordination. The fact of the matter is that terrorism by it's very nature is a sort of last refuge and what we see is low budget, decentralized, and limited. Television may have given us the gift of fear about sleeper cells, but the utter lack of any attacks on American soil since 9-11 is indicative of just how few terrorists there are in our midst.

As I mentioned in posting on the Fort Hood attack, terrorism is relatively easy to accomplish. Just as there are limits in our ability to stop some sick kid from shooting up his school, there are limits in our abilities to stop some maniac from blowing up a bus station. If there were tons of real, honest-to-God terrorists amongst us, they would have blown something up by now.

This is not to say that our intelligence community shouldn't keep working- They should, and I can't think of a better use of intelligence and law enforcement than in prevention of terrorism and preparedness in terror response. The larger point is about privacy and security- what do we want and what rights shouldn't be given away and about our political leaders who insist that this is the most serious threat our nation faces. I don't doubt the evil that's out there, I just have a problem with the fear, particularly when it seems to me as though the threat isn't all that different from school shooters, similar sorts of mass murderers, and serial killers.

Which brings us to my final point. The failed Christmas day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, is to be tried in civilian court, fanning the typical flames of outrage. And I'll be honest, I can see the pros and cons of both utilizing the criminal justice system and in treating the failed bomber as a war criminal. The real issue- and the real problem that remains- is unchecked power of the executive branch to define the issue. So maybe Mutallab would have been a war criminal for George W. Bush, but for Barack Obama, he's a criminal defendant. For those who care the least bit about the rule of law this should be deeply troubling. There's nothing wrong with the terrorist, war criminal label so long as there's some sort of articulated legal basis for the label. What we have now and what we've had for nearly a decade is a situation where the President has unlimited authority in naming terrorists who don't deserve the protections of the Constitution and the criminal justice system. I've been making this point since 2004 and it's one liberals, conservatives, and libertarians of all stripes have failed to address. Terrorism doesn't fit in traditional legal rubrics, but a decade later we still have nothing new to work with.


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