January 7, 2015–Breaking news this morning that several gunmen attacked the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo colors the day. At last report eleven had been killed and others wounded. Reportedly the attackers were three men, disguised in ski masks, seeking to avenge what they regard as cartoons lampooning Muslim apostle Mohammed. President Francois Hollande rushes to the scene. President Barack Obama promises any American help that seems desirable.
The stories that will be written about this incident have yet to be inked but already you can see the hacks aligning themselves to play the buttons of the American people. Another push on the hysteria button is just around the corner. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham successively tweets that U.S. intelligence capabilities to detect something like this have atrophied, and the security forces to stop it don’t exist. No doubt Fearful Clapper and others will be stepping up right behind Graham.
Don’t believe it, either claim. U.S. intelligence capabilities have atrophied because we can’t torture? That’s silly. As CIA never tires of telling us, with only a few exceptions all their torture was done by 2003 and, anyway, their later attempts to preserve a standby capability and legal authorization were over with by 2007-2008. Since that time the CIA and/or FBI have busted up an alleged Times Square plot, a Subway plot, the underwear bomber plot, the copy machine bomb plot, a Portland plot, and others.
Equally to the point, American leaders and CIA torturers may or may not get a pass on the outrages they have already inflicted, but, if today the Charlie Hebdo or any other incident leads the Americans to re-institute CIA torture, at that point you can be certain that Americans–past offenders probably included–will face future war crimes charges.
As for security capabilities taken separately, by some measures the United States is the most over-policed nation on the globe. Indeed the story of recent months here is one of minorities and other populations rejecting overbearing police intimidation and violence. American police need more training, more stringent regulation, less incentive to violate civil rights, and certainly less military equipment and armament.
Again and again–in the Fort Hood massacre, in the Navy Yard shootings, in other incidents here and abroad–the attackers’ delicate psychological mechanisms break down, converting long alleged grievances into immediate perceived causes for action. My bet is the Charlie Hebdo murders will end up in this category too. “Detecting” longstanding personal grievances is not a legitimate intelligence function. Where detection occurs it is by coincidence. No amount of apparatus will establish a reliable standing capability to detect personal grievances. Nor do police need more SWAT teams. Far more security would be gained by making it impossible to obtain assault rifles and other automatic weapons.