Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The perils of being no. 2 in a terrorist group -- or a four year-old trying to board a plane

The AP reports today that Pakistan now confirms what news outlets have been telling us about all week, namely, that the Taliban's reputed no. 2 commander, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, has been arrested. This is being touted as a splendid victory.

I don't know if you've had the same perception, but it seems to me that Americans and their allies are always rounding up the no. 2 figure in the Taliban or in al-Qaeda. We just never seem to find Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden.

Getting promoted to no. 2 in these terrorist groups seems to be career suicide, while being no. 1 means never having to say, "I surrender."

Of course, some cynics may suspect that counterterrorism experts are full of no. 2 themselves -- that they habitually exaggerate the value of their captures.

This might have been possible in a past administration, I suppose, but we now live in the enlightened and transparent Age of Obama where such things would never be permitted. Right?

So, perhaps, another explanation is required. Maybe it has to do with the terrorist business model.

I remember when banks had nearly as many vice presidents as employees. Nearly everyone promoted past teller was a VP or at least an assistant vice president or assistant secretary. It had something to do with the execution of corporate and trust documents. Title companies were similarly loaded with gaudy titles.

Perhaps the Taliban and al-Qaeda pass out titles with a similar liberality.

If so, it would be the first and only liberal thing that either group has ever done.

But then it would not be our counterterrorism experts who are exaggerating the value of our captives, it would be the captives themselves, each proclaiming himself a VP -- a no. 2.

Which brings us to our second recent splendid victory in the war on terror: This past Friday the Transportation Safety Administration finally apologized to the parents of a four year-old, developmentally delayed boy, who was forced to remove his corrective leg braces before being allowed to board a flight to Disney World -- last March.

Little Ryan Thomas had not been reported as a potential terrorist threat by his father -- something that would distinguish Ryan's case from that of, say, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Indeed, Ryan's father, Bob, a Camden, New Jersey police officer, was trying to board the same flight. According to the linked AP story, TSA spokesperson Ann Davis acknowledges that "there are other ways to screen people with leg braces."

Gosh! D'ya think so?

This latest TSA atrocity -- and the 11 months between outrage and apology -- highlights how we are injuring ourselves in this "war on terror." (And you will note that the linked AP article says nothing about anyone losing their job or even being disciplined.)

I've objected to the concept of "Homeland Security" from the start. "Homeland" sounds dangerously close, to my ear, to "Fatherland." Look: America is a place, like Germany or Sweeden or Fiji -- but it has always been something more, too. It is an idea, or a set of ideas -- of beliefs -- in freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of movement. New York or Washington could disappear tomorrow -- but America would not be dead or even crippled -- unless our wounds were self-inflicted. Our embrace of principles over bloodlines has allowed us to become the freest, most open, and most inclusive society in the history of the world. That's American exceptionalism.

Letting petty tyrants rip the leg braces off a little boy -- without cause or justification -- allowing them to pour out coffee cups and make people take off their shoes in the name of "security" -- diminishes us all. Ben Franklin said it long, long ago: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Yes, there are bad guys in the world (almost all no. 2's in their respective terrorist organizations, apparently) but we can watch out for them without turning ourselves into a nation of stocking-footed sheep.

For more on Ryan Thomas' airport nightmare, read this column by Daniel Rubin.


Dave said...

After all these years, someone wrote what I thought. I hated "Homeland" then and and do now for the same reason.

I may be a bit more of a wimp than you. Most of the TSA folks aren't bad that I've run into. Like all other categories of people, some suck, some don't.

Two examples of categorization. I know and am a friend of a number of cops. They, and not all of their fellows are nice guys. You and I are lawyers. You're OK from what I can tell.

The Curmudgeon said...

Dave, you're right of course that not all TSA agents are petty tyrants -- the vast majority, I'm sure, are just people who need the work. The job description, though, attracts more than their share of would-be tyrants -- just like pedophiles are attracted to scout leader positions, or youth minister jobs... or the Catholic priesthood. That doesn't tar all the fine people who do that work either.

My problem is the system itself. Last night, on the news, I heard that the TSA is now going to 'randomly' swab the hands of passengers looking for explosive residue. Random? Why?

Have random people put explosives in their shoes or undies? Or has it been self-described Muslim extremists? Doesn't that suggest a need for police work rather than mass intimidation?