Friday, January 21, 2005

“O n September 11, one in 3,000 New Yorkers perished, but in the same year, over 1 in 1,000 urbanites were murdered in three major cities in the Western Hemisphere alone,” according to Russell Seitz in his article “Weaker than we think” in The American Conservative (Dec. 6, 2004).

He says the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon reign supreme among media events not because of the strategic effect of hijacked planes but the power of the media.

Mr. Seitz, formerly of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs and a Los Alamos National Laboratory consultant, has written extensively on weapons of mass destruction and proliferation. He argues: While information about WMD is all over the place, functional expertise is relatively rare. Building a nuclear weapon, even without sanctions, entails hundreds of Ph.D.s directing a small army of people. Mr. Seitz also says, “Stealing hydrogen bombs, like breaking into Fort Knox, is hard work; the score is still zero despite a half-century of trying.”

There’s no doubt whatsoever al Qaeda and other Middle East terrorist groups hate the United States and intend to do great harm to Americans whenever they can. The important point Mr. Seitz makes in his article is that “policy must consider the capacity for action, not intent alone.”

According to Mr. Seitz, London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates that since September 11 Osama bin Laden has recruited 18,000 men, while some U.S. Defense Department officials say he’s down to his last 3,000.

Mr. Seitz says that the average al Qaeda grunt is not a bright young jihadi but a high school dropout who lives at home. In the wake of a withering attack by a hyperpower and its allies, al Qaeda’s main preoccupation is with its own security and survival and not its anti-Western strategy.

Mr. Seitz concludes, “However tall bin Laden may loom as a scourge of civilizations, it is increasingly clear that his arsenal is as phony as his army is small — its shelves are bare of expertise and materiel alike.”

Don’t get me wrong. Neither Mr. Seitz nor I seek to minimize the terrorist threat we face, but it surely should be evaluated realistically. Why? It’s a resource-allocation question. It’s nonoptimal to either underestimate or overestimate the threat. I’m sure some might argue “the government can’t make us too safe from terrorist threats.” That’s not smart.

Being too safe from terrorist attacks can be costly in at least a couple of ways. The most costly is our willy-nilly acceptance of government intrusions on our liberties and privacy in the name of security. For just one example, banks, brokerage houses, insurers and other financial institutions have been turned into state informers who must notify the Treasury Department about “suspicious” transactions. A customer’s attempt to maintain financial privacy can be seen and reported as a suspicious transaction. Our financial records can be subpoenaed and examined even if there is no evidence of wrongdoing.

Government officials have always wanted access to our financial records. The war on terrorism gives them the cover to do so. Here’s what might be proof: How about an amendment to the Patriot Act whereby any information gathered under its provisions cannot be used in a court of law unless it can be tied to terrorist activity? I’m guessing few politicians and law enforcement authorities would agree to such an amendment.

Most vital to the conduct of any war, including a war on terrorism, is a vibrant, flexible economy. It’s possible massive volumes of security regulations and massive security expenditures can weaken our economy and thereby threaten national security. Al Qaeda-type terrorism is not our only national security threat either now or in the future. Keep in mind our productive capacity ultimately won the Cold War.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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