I have a gut feeling Michael Chertoff is full of shit.

From Radley Balko, at Reason Magazine:

So why is that despite the fact that there hasn’t been a terror attack on U.S. soil in nearly six years, it still feels like we’re losing the “war on terror?”

I’d say it’s because of crap like this:

  • On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the editorial board of The Chicago Tribune that he had a “gut feeling” about a new period of increased risk.
  • He based his assessment on earlier patterns of terrorists in Europe and intelligence he would not disclose.
  • “Summertime seems to be appealing to them,” Chertoff said in his discussion with the newspaper about terrorists. “We worry that they are rebuilding their activities.”
  • Other U.S. counterterrorism officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, shared Chertoff’s concern and said that al-Qaida and like-minded groups have been able to plot and train more freely in the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border in recent months. Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, are believed to be hiding in the rugged region.

By definition, the aim of “terrorism” is not to topple the U.S. government, or even to rack up a massive body count (though that seems to be a perk for them). The aim of terrorism is to cause terror. It’s to scare us. Frighten us. Alter our way of life, and get our government to change its policies.

In this sense, the very people who are supposed to be protecting us from terrorists are playing right into the terrorists’ hands. Despite the absence of any specific information, and despite the fact that his saying as much would do little if anything to actually thwart a pending attack, Chertoff still feels he has to go public with his “gut feeling” that something awful might happen this summer. And so the newspapers and Drudge and the blogs run with it. And now we get to go about our summer business with the foreboding cloud of a possible terror attack looming on the horizon.

This is pretty consistent with how the government has behaved since 9/11: vague warnings, a lack of specific information, and lots of hassle. We now go through an expensive, invasive, tedious, basically useless ritual every time we get on an airplane because the government feels like if we’re hassled and frightened, we’ll at least feel safer. When Britain broke up a half-assed attempt at an attack using liquid explosives, the government decided to add a complicated sorta’-ban on carrying gels and liquids onto flights, too. Never mind that the broken-up attack wouldn’t have worked, or that it would be nearly impossible to bring down a plane with liquid explosives stored in a carry-on bag. And now, Chertoff casts a shadow over the summer based on rumbles in his gut.

Al-Qaeda doesn’t actually have to kill people to cause terror, especially if we’re doing their PR work for them. They don’t need to actually land any body blows if we keep falling to the canvas every time they fake a punch. What if Chertoff’s right? Maybe there will be an attack this summer. I hope not. But if there is, what purpose did this vague, scary warning serve, other than to frighten people?

I suppose you could argue that such warnings put all of us on high alert—that they make us more likely to report suspicious activity and such. But I doubt it. September 11 woke us up. I find it implausible, for example, that plane passengers will be more likely now to tackle and incapacitate a threatening passenger than they would have been before Chertoff’s warning, or that someone would be more likely now to report a suspicious package in an airport lobby.

Not to mention that these pronouncements are a kind of red flag to those terrorists who may actually be out there. Think about it. If you’re part of a sleeper cell, when would you be most likely to carry out your attack: Now, when the government has announced it’s on high alert, or perhaps later, when things have returned to normal-ish?

I suppose you could also argue that in that sense, these pronouncements do stave off terror attacks. But if that’s the case, they really only postpone them, don’t they?

To me, this smells of “doing something” syndrome. That is, Chertoff may or may not have gotten wind of some Al-Qaeda chatter that made him nervous. His comments today, then, are a way to cover his butt should that chatter lead to an actual attack. He can then say, “Hey, we were on it. We may not have prevented it, but at least we warned you.” And of course if there’s no attack, who’s going to complain?

That’s a good way of looking like you’re fighting terrorism, but it seems to me it isn’t actually fighting terrorism. In fact, it’s quite literally spreading terror.

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