Enough is enough: Some irate theses on the need for another kind of counterterrorism

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These lines have been written under the impression and as a first reaction of the latest terrorist attacks in Brussels and live on frustration caused by the apparently low degree of efficiency of counterterrorism as we know it today.

The following theses should be taken cognizance of:

1.: The history of terrorist attacks shows clearly that the purely defensive approach which governs the thinking of our security and intelligence agencies has to be abandoned as quickly as possible: If the attacker is in a position to choose place and time of an attack there is no way whatsoever to provide the protection the citizen is entitled to. If a situation continues in which an investment by terrorists of the amount of 1US $ can cause damage of 1 million US$ and more, let alone the loss of any human life…there is no justification whatsoever to still delay thinking about a shift of paradigm regarding counterterrorism.

2.: It is simply not enough to activate the usual talk show-circus after every terrorist attack including hooey by politicians who are deep down convinced that - what they consider - “normality” will carry the day in the end.  

3.: One gets sick and tired to experience that a bunch of fanatics is in the position to paralyze public life to a degree which we have experienced so many times and over and over again.

In my view it is imperative that the question must be asked most urgently whether our intelligence on which counterterrorism is based, is the suitable instrument to avoid precarious situations.

Some remarks on this: Intelligence services are in first place bureaucracies; this means a. o. they are hierarchically structured organizations.

According to Robert Merton, who did very valuable research on the nature of bureaucracies, they are characterized by what he calls “over-conformity” and “goal displacement”. “Over-conformity” refers to the inclination of people working within bureaucracies to be risk adverse and to leave delicate decisions to the people who are higher positioned in the bureaucratic hierarchy. The negative effect of this state of mind is domination on part of the views of the higher echelons and the absence of creative competition of ideas.

More over the tendency to leave decisions to the higher placed authorities is too time-consuming which is unaffordable when it comes to counterterrorism.

Finally, one has to see that the higher the level on which decision making is taking place the greater the danger that political interference sets in - which has the unpleasant attribute to make rational reasoning go awry.

By “goal displacement” Robert Merton alludes to the tendency of bureaucratic institutions to devote increasingly more time, effort and resources to the maintenance of the bureaucratic system as such, instead of solving problems: Regarding intelligence, which counterterrorism is supposed to be based on, we find that intelligence services are much more obsessed with the execution of bureaucratic procedures instead of fighting terrorism.

What was supposed to be a means to an end, namely bureaucratic procedures, thereby becomes an end in itself.

From these and other aspects I conclude that our intelligence bureaucracies are hardly able to come to grips with terrorism. They are measured to the terrorist problem situation like a fish to a birdcage.

This is not supposed to be a sort of academic train of thoughts but a compilation of theses which may sound provocative to people who have a libidinous relationship to what they are used to. They refuse to leave their intellectual “Ducksburg” back even if the discrepancy between operating expenses and effect is becoming wider and wider in a rather obscene way.

In view of successful counter-terrorism we do not need a type of intelligence which can be compared to a symphony orchestra following rules in the form of notes and which is directed by a conductor who sees to it that nobody moves beyond his interpretation of a piece of music. What we need is the Jazz-band, in which there is enough freedom to deal with a given theme in a non-hierarchical way.

4.: There is good reason to think about completely different ways of fighting terrorism. The hitherto established means and forms of organization are a scandal when you look at the cost/benefit-ratio.

The required new approaches must be guided by the insight that we have to leave the established defensive approach behind and switch to a proactive and preemptive mode. This though presupposes that we start developing a more intelligent intelligence as a base for counterterrorism.

The good news is that promising alternatives are very well at hand; the bad news is that those alternatives would question the raison d’ètre of established bureaucracies and of influential segments of the political class which therefore would put up fanatic and “one-dimensional” resistance against new approaches which they consider a threat to their position.

The required shift or change of paradigm presupposes readiness to say goodbye to established though inefficient approaches. As already stated one must not hedge any illusion that established self-satisfied bureaucracies as well as politicians who love it to perform as “expert-impersonators” in respective talk-shows will not put up resistance to trains of thoughts which implicitly question their competence.

The question though remains: How many more incidents like 9/11, Madrid, London, Mumbai, Paris, Brussels etc. etc. are we prepared to tolerate until the question is seriously discussed whether our hitherto known counter-terrorism is not a cul-de-sac and whether it is not utter utter high time to have a closer look at ways which are there but which are not taken cognizance of.

Better start thinking now than many-millions-of-material-damage-and-unforgivable-loss-of-lives later!

Enough is enough!           

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Author: Prof. Dr. Klaus Lange