The attempted terrorist attack of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day reiterates the lesson America should have learned, but did not learn, on that day:
The federal government cannot be everywhere. The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people, is the American people themselves – properly informed.
Bruce Schneir makes a similar limited point about the impotence of so many national security measures:
Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.
It is shocking that this lesson still remains unlearned. And not only does it remain unlearned, but the opposite lesson has been taken. Rather than learning from the events of that day, many have taken their lessons from the television show 24 where an all-powerful, centralized government bureaucracy aiding a rogue agent is able to prevent or mitigate one disaster after another. If one Big Brother-type agency can protect us, then torture, wars in the Middle East, and unlimited executive powers could be the answer. But this requires one to believe that government bureaucracies are incredibly competent – and never fail, even once. As the national security maxim goes: We need to stop them every time to claim success. They only need to succeed once.
Yet, right wingers have lined up to promote this idea that everyone must expect a super-competent government, even as they dismiss government’s ability to effectively do anything else – as for example Henry Paine in the National Review complained of the “federal takeover of the U.S. health system” while blaming the Obama administration for the fact that Abdulmutallab was on this plane, calling the two stories together “A Tale of Failed Washington Priorities.” James Joy Carafano explained that in stopping this attack, we “just got lucky” – which is true – but he couples this with the suggestion that centralized government action would fix this if only Obama cared about stopping terrorism and didn’t want “Department of Homeland Security push for a mass amnesty bill [rather] than fight terrorists…”
Victor Davis Hanson almost perfectly captures the missed lesson with this:
I think the year-long mantra of “Bush destroyed the Constitution” is now almost over, and we will begin again worrying about our collective safety rather than scoring partisan points by citing supposed excesses in our anti-terrorism efforts… [Yet] As we learned on 9/11, it is often the unsung heroes among us that come out of the shadows to aid us, and not necessarily large bureaucracies entrusted with our safety. Individuals acting on their own so often make the difference between salvation and mass murder.
Let me rephrase: We must worry about “collective safety” and stop trying to protect the Constitution because….”large bureaucracies entrusted with our safety” fail and instead “Individuals acting on their own…make the difference between salvation and mass murder.”
Either that, or perhaps we should realize that no matter what our centralized bureaucratic institutions may do to try to protect us, they will never achieve the competence imagined on 24. Rather, even as they should do what they can, we must realize the lesson learned from these thwarted attacks is that we cannot trust the federal government to protect us. We must protect ourselves. George W. Bush did not have the power to keep us safe after September 11. We did that. Barack Obama likewise does not have the power.
Motivated, vigilant, informed citizens are not a “thin line of defense.” There is no perfect defense to motivated people willing to kill themselves. We should do everything we can to create responsible national security measures to prevent any terrorist attacks – but we must remember that no defense is perfect, and that the best defense, the only proven defense, as events have proven time and again, is a motivated, vigilant, informed citizenry.
[Image by bfraz licensed under Creative Commons.]