Robert Scheer is the editor of Truthdig, where this article originally appeared. His latest book is The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America (Twelve).
There is no “war” against terrorism. What George W. Bush launched and Barack Obama insists on perpetuating does not qualify. Not if by war one means doing the obvious and checking a highly suspicious air traveler’s underwear to see if explosives have been sewn in. If Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had put the stuff in his shoes we would have had him because that was tried before, but our government was too preoccupied with fighting unnecessary conventional wars and developing anti-missile defense systems to anticipate such a primitive delivery system.
The explosives-laden underwear–worn by an airline passenger who had previously been flagged as a potentially dangerous fanatic, and who had paid cash for his ticket and had no checked luggage–was the terrorist’s weapon of choice, one that could have blown a hole in the side of Northwest Airlines’ Detroit-bound Flight 253 on Christmas Day, killing hundreds of innocents. But it is not a weapon to be effectively countered with the deployment of hundreds of thousands of American combat troops. Nor can it be stopped by the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of planes, subs and missiles in our arsenal of cold war-era weapons, part of an annual defense budget that is higher in inflation-adjusted dollars than at any time in the past half-century.
In response to the 9/11 hijackers, armed with artillery that cost a couple hundred dollars at most, we threw money and, more important, attention at conventional military responses while neglecting the difficult police work and the intelligence evaluation and civilian-focused technology necessary to thwart homeland attacks. Yes, there are evildoers out there that mean us harm, as President Bush declaimed. But they are often the products of the best of Western education who, as examples ranging from the lead 9/11 hijackers–the Hamburg group–to the elite University College London-educated engineer in the latest incident demonstrate, move more easily in urbane Western societies than in Afghan villages.