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Terrorism isn’t going away, so how are we going to respond?

Ed Lotterman, business columnist
Ed Lotterman, business columnist Staff

Every day in America we substantiate thoughts of the 19th-century Swiss military thinker Antoine-Henri Jomini. Indeed, if he, Osama bin Laden and Muhammed Atta were somehow looking across the great divide at people filing into a football stadium near my home or waiting in airport security lines, Jomini might nod in agreement as the two terrorists exchanged high fives. Their 9/11 attack was a textbook example of a military principle he championed, “economy of force.”

Every time parents with a baby distribute the contents of a diaper bag between their pockets enter a stadium, a woman clutches tampons in her hands to do the same, or thousands of footsore travelers shift fretfully in line, it’s clear that the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were the greatest “economy of force” operation in human history. Never before had such a small expenditure of lives and money inflicted so much harm on an enemy.

After the 15th anniversary of the attacks, it is human to focus on the deaths. Those totaled about 3,000 on the day itself and that many again among public safety members who contracted fatal health problems. One cannot put an exact value on human life, though we do so implicitly in decisions we make.

In this case, it is our own efforts at security after the attacks that have imposed high economic costs. Of course, these decisions also are prompted by other incidents such as the shoe and underwear plane bombers, the San Bernardino shootings and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Extra security measures at airports now affect 900 million person-flights per year in the United States alone. At an hour extra for each in our country alone, time lost annually by travelers roughly equals that of 450,000 people working full-time. If we added that many to the unemployed, the national rate in September would have been over 5.1 percent instead of 4.9 percent. This is just for extra time for travelers due to airport security. The hours of work by thousands of security personnel is extra. And that is only at airports.

There also are the security checks at myriad other facilities. There are all people working in private security, all metal detectors and scanners, concrete barriers, bomb-sniffing dogs and on and on. The economic costs we imposed on ourselves are enormous. And they outweigh the resources that went into the 9/11 hijackings by a greater margin than in any other attack in history.

In military terms, “economy of force” refers to small forces disproportionately damaging one’s enemies. The strategic purpose is to free other resources for a main attack. That really wasn’t true on 9/11. The hijackers were out to strike a blow, not facilitate a larger attack.

However, counter to much electoral braggadocio, al-Qaida and the like do not pose an existential threat to the government or economy of our country or of any ally. But, despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent on security measures, it remains possible for them to kill a few of us and thus frighten, anger and humiliate all of us.

So we surrender civil liberties to intelligence agencies and limit the size of purses at football games. Perhaps there is no alternative. We have had no deaths from terrorism in aviation since 9/11 itself. But that does not mean airport security is unneeded. If we returned to measures in place 20 years ago, we might well suffer successful attacks.

That is an unwelcome reality of this millennium. Warfare has become asymmetric in ways that favor small decentralized groups. Organizations scuh as Islamic State cannot take over countries and hold them, but they can motive enormous spending on security. Candidates’ bombast about “carpet bombing,” “making sand glow in the dark” and “kill their families” aside, it is impossible to wipe these groups out. Their threat can be suppressed, but not eliminated.

Are we then condemned to large expenditures forever? Perhaps. But we can also be more prudent in applying a rule of reason. Public officials need to be more willing to ask, “Is this metal detector really necessary?” In 2004, I chanced to drive by a little Army Reserve Center in a rural county seat where I had served 25 years earlier. Nearly empty 28 days of the month, by 2004 it was surrounded by concrete barriers to keep vehicles distant from the building. Clearly, if a terrorist wanted to carry out an attack in that rural town, there are at least a dozen targets, including the Pizza Ranch and Walmart, that would be much more attractive. But someone in the Defense Department decided we needed barriers at every little military facility, regardless of objective risk.

Private sector decision makers need to be more judicious, too. Do stringent limits on purse or diaper bag sizes really improve our security to a degree that outweighs the inconvenience imposed? Or are such measures just street theater, what soldiers call “eyewash,” meant for show rather than substance? Or are they driven by fear of U.S. juries willingness to award multimillion dollar damages on thin reasons if some incident would occur?

Ignore nonsense about “winning the war on terror.” There is no individual terrorist or organization that can or will surrender to us the way the Japanese did in 1945. We are going to be in this situation for a long time. We can try to be reasonable and prudent in choosing security measures or we can whip ourselves into frenzies. Which of these we choose will affect what resources will be left to meet the other needs of our societies.

St. Paul economist and writer Edward Lotterman can be reached at boise@edlotterman.com.

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