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Monday, March 14, 2005

Clarke's science fiction?

I am blogging about a recent article by Richard Clarke, who was the "national coordinator for security and counterterrorism for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush." So, this post is not about the sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke.

However, Richard Clarke's recent (January/February 2005) piece in The Atlantic (subscription required) may seem like science fiction to a lot of readers.

Clarke's article is fact-based fiction, written from the perspective of a speech delivered on September 11, 2011. In the address, Clarke's protaganist, Professor Roger McBride, outlines a decade of terrorist attacks against the US.

Most are relatively low-technology attacks by al Qaeda or Hizbollah: bombs in casinos, amusement parks, subways, and shopping malls, anti-aircraft missiles against passenger aircraft, viruses and worms against computer systems, etc.

Clarke is hanging out at Harvard these days, so I'm surprised he didn't imagine academic institutions as targets. Clarke discusses a feared nuclear attack that doesn't materialize, but does have terrorists strike US chemical plants (I just received a mailing like this one from the Sierra club with the same concern).

In any case, everyone who reads the piece is likely to experience a bit of anxiety, simply because many of the attacks are quite plausible. Indeed, Clarke includes dozens of footnotes to the piece, typically from news stories, policy shops, and government reports. He's not imagining worst-case scenarios, he's attempting to highlight known risks.

In Clarke's vision of the future, the US implements ever-more restrictive Patriot Act sequels, uses the military for domestic operations, adopts national identity cards, closely monitors visitors to malls, etc. The US also attacks Iran, fails to prevent the Saudi government from falling to extremists, and suffers very high oil prices.

In short, it's not a pleasant future...even if it does bring families closer together (because they stay home out of fear), reduce spam email and help a left-leaning civil libertarian political party capture some seats in Congress and other offices.

Could all this happen?


Is it likely?

I'd argue no. It has been three and a half years since 9/11 and these kinds of attacks have not been occurring on a regular basis in the US.

Perhaps there aren't as many terrorists as authorities fear? Perhaps the US does a good job of keeping likely terrorists out of the US? Perhaps few suicidal terrorists want to kill large numbers of Americans?

In sum, maybe the risk of terrorist attacks really isn't that high?

I agree with Clarke that domestic security should be accorded a higher priority, and that Iraq was a huge distraction of resources from the real war on terror, but I'm not sure opponents of the Bush administration ought to adopt these kinds of fear appeals to win their argument.

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