In the Three Stooges short, “A Plumbing We Will Go,” Curly tries to stop the water spraying out of a bathroom wall by threading on some pipe fittings. The water just sprays out the end. So he threads on more. And more. And more. But the water just sprays from the end of each new piece. Curly eventually discovers that he’s imprisoned himself in a cage of pipe, with water still spraying out of the last piece he added.
So, terrorists armed with box cutters bring down three airliners on September 11, 2001. Washington’s response? Institute a massive domestic electronic surveillance program. Gut habeas corpus. No nail clippers in carry-on. Make passengers empty their pockets and raise their arms for a sweep with a handheld metal detector.
Richard Reid makes it through airport security in Paris with explosives in his shoes. Washington’s response? Make passengers stand in line and take off their shoes.
Police in England disrupt a plot to blow up transatlantic flights using liquid explosives. Washington’s response? No skin cream, toothpaste, shampoo over 3 oz. in your carry-ons; have them ready in a zip-lock bag for inspection. Deposit anything larger in the trash bins, please.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab goes through airport security in Lagos, Nigeria. He goes through security again in Amsterdam. He then tries to bring down an airliner over Detroit using a bomb hidden in his underwear. Washington’s response? Colonoscopies for passengers boarding in Cleveland.
Okay, full body scans. Whatever. Thread on another stick of pipe. Overlay another level of “security.” But whatever you do, don’t address the motives behind the violence.
At a White House press briefing last week, reporter Helen Thomas asked and asked again why these terrorists “want to do us harm.” White House Counterterrorism and Homeland Security advisor, John Brennan, gave Thomas a response right out of the Bush administration playbook, “Al Qaida is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents.” Not exactly post-Pearl Harbor "slant-eyed japs" rhetoric, but not far off either.
Glenn Greenwald went all reductio ad absurdum on that response:
Osama bin Laden himself gave a few clues in his February 1998 fatwa, Greenwald notes. Why do they attack us? Because we have our infidel "crusader armies" on the Arabian peninsula and in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites. Because of the destruction wrought on Iraq and Iraqi children by economic sanctions. Because of U.S. support for Israel – because of Gaza, and Sabra and Shatila. Post-September 11, add the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, uncounted civilian deaths, and torture, prisoner abuse and killings at American-run prisons, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram.
Brennan's answer -- they do this because they're Evil and murderous -- is on the same condescending cartoon level as the "They-Hate-us-For-Our-Freedom" tripe we endured for the last eight years. Apparently, if Brennan is to be believed, Islamic radicals, in their motive-free quest to slaughter, write down the names of all the countries in the world and put them in a hat and then stick their hand in and select the one they will attack, and the U.S. just keeps getting unlucky and having its name randomly chosen. Countries like China, Brazil, Japan, Chile, Greece, South Africa, France and a whole slew of others must have really good luck. That Al Qaeda is evil and murderous and perverts Islam is a judgment about what they do, not an answer as to what motivates them.
For the executive branch, giving Thomas’ question the answer it deserves is a no-win proposition. To discuss why Islamist terrorists preferentially target the United States means examining those events. It might require a serious examination of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and maybe changes to it, changes that might provide al Qaida’s murderers with a thin veneer of legitimacy. The media, the GOP and the American right wing would have a field day.
It's easier just to keep threading on more pipe until we find ourselves prisoners in a cage of our own making.
(Cross-posted from Campaign for America's Future.)