Tuesday, May 4

Two responses to the terrorism question

Both the New York response and the Washington response to security threats just happen to be on display in the same week ...

The New York response to terrorism has been "see something, say something." These were the words that the T-shirt vendor who alerted a mounted police officer of the smoking SUV told reporters as he stepped into a taxi cab. As Fred Kaplan points out in Slate, this is not unlike the message of the great New Yorker Jane Jacobs.

"Jane Jacobs observed that sidewalks and their users are "active participants in the drama of civilization versus barbarism" (by "barbarism," she meant crime) and that a continuously busy sidewalk is a safe sidewalk, because those who have business there—"the natural proprietors of the street"—provide "eyes upon the street...
This may explain why busy areas like Times Square aren't attacked by terrorists more often. The crowds make them tempting targets: lots of people mean lots of potential victims and subsequent media attention. But those same crowds—especially the regulars, who are always looking out on the street—make an attack harder to conceal and, therefore, to pull off."
The Washington response is the opposite. It is to keep people out of sensitive areas entirely. This is what happened yesterday when the decision was made to close the front doors of the U.S. Supreme Court. Now the public will have to enter through a secured underground entrance to the side. Justices Breyer and Ginsburg were not amused.
"To many members of the public, this Court’s main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the Court itself.
This is why, even though visitors will remain able to leave via the front entrance, I find dispiriting the Court’s decision to refuse to permit the public to enter. I certainly recognize the concerns identified in the two security studies that led to this recent decision (which reaffirmed a decision made several years ago). But potential security threats will exist regardless of which entrance we use. And, in making this decision, it is important not to undervalue the symbolic and historic importance of allowing visitors to enter the Court after walking up Gilbert’s famed front steps."
I'm not trying to suggest that one is better than the other. How would I know? Times Square is a target because of its many people, and the Courthouse is a target because of its symbolism (and the Justices themselves). It makes sense that different questions would yield different answers.


Eric Orozco said...

When we let terrorists dictate our freedom to the way we live our life in freedom, to the we access and use our public realm, that is when they are winning. That is what encourages MORE terrorism.

There is something very dysfunctional about American responses to terrorism. I lived in Jerusalem for three years, and I can't help but to contrast the sabra resolve to take it to the chin with terrorism and the whimpering OMG paranoia of my fellow Americans.

In Israel, they simply restore. They don't erect monuments or plaster plaques. They don't cordon off or take a different route. They won't let terrorism dictate their life. They are not defeatists.

Daniel Nairn said...

Eric, I bet the Jerusalem experience is the most helpful of any. They've been dealing this for much longer and much more intensely then we have. I noticed that Justice Breyer referenced the Israeli Supreme Court in his dissent. He asks why they can still keep their front doors open and we can't.

I'm still inclined to be agnostic about all of this. I don't think those security reports are public, so none of us really know the extent of the threat. Yet again, the lack of public process is what makes this so difficult. Security is not just a technical question, but sets of values are also involved: Shield or restore (as you put it), safety or freedom. I can understand leaving the surface level technicalities up to experts working behind closed doors, but shouldn't those deeper values be the purview of the people?

Eric Orozco said...

Daniel point taken. I would classify Israeli thinking rather as "shield and restore", "offensive and defensive", and essentially pragmatic with a long term perspective at the foreground of decision making. Of course, the Israeli security apparatus is much more extensive (per capita) and more experienced than ours as well as much leaner and smarter in resources.

The greatest lesson we can take from Israelis...Be proactive about educating and equiping citizenry. This naturally leads to less passivity, less fear and helplessness, less need to whimper.