Thursday, April 19, 2007

The U.S. Is Not Crawling With Terrorists

On Monday, one of Andrew Sullivan's readers asked him the following question inspired by the horrific events at Virginia Tech:
I had a thought; if anyone can get a gun, and shoot people, even teenagers, and obviously psychotic people, then why haven't any Islamist terrorists done so?

I mean, wouldn't they? If a jihadist can go into Walmart, buy a gun and ammo, go back to his car, load the gun, and go back into the Walmart and shoot everyone in sight, then why haven't any of them done this?

. . . Could the threat be exagerated? This question is not intended to be rhetorical; I would really like to know.
I was not impressed by Andrew's response:

There are several possibilities:

> Our excessive homeland security is actually doing a good job of screening out terrorists
> The terrorists that are here can't buy guns legally, because they are illegal aliens
> The terrorists don't want to shoot people.

I assume that all three are true, but I'd bet that number three has the largest effect. . . . They [the terrorists] want to kill people in ways that are spectacular, fear-inducing, and hard to defend against. . . Attacks like today's aren't actually that hard to defend against, not if they are common. Arm the teachers; arm the students; put armed security guards in every building. We don't defend against them because they are rare, not because we couldn't.

Bombs, on the other hand, are very hard to defend against, which is why Israel has had such a difficult time doing so.

As sometimes happens with Andrew Sullivan, I feel that he is trying hard to think clearly here but not succeeding especially well.

First of all, I can't see how Sullivan, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, could write that a gun attack is not sufficiently "spectacular" and "fear-inducing" to satisfy a terrorist. We haven't had such an intense mass media response to a tragedy since 9/11. If the gunman had proven to be an Islamist extremist from a terror cell, can there be any doubt that the country would be in a near-catatonic state of hysteria?

Second, on what basis does Sullivan assert that guns are easier to defend against than bombs? Isn't the average handgun smaller and easier to smuggle than the average bomb? And there are plenty of public places in the United States where a concealed gun is legal and no security measures are in place to exclude them--whereas a bomb would always be out of the ordinary and hard to hide.

It is true that a well-designed and well-placed bomb can kill more people than a lone gunman is likely to do--Oklahoma City demonstrated that. But (gruesome as it is to say), a determined and well-trained gunman with the right weapons can certainly kill enough people to produce terror.

I think Andrew's thinking here is distorted by his instinctive desire to resist the conclusion that the terrorist threat has, in fact, been exaggerated. I think it clearly has been exaggerated. If there were in fact a significant number of terrorists in the United States seriously determined to kill lots of people and willing to die in the process, there'd be practically no way to stop them--and we would surely have experienced many more attacks than we have.

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