Not Knowing Jack About Terrorism | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Not Knowing Jack About Terrorism 

Goofy national security advice from all over

I'll confess: I'm jealous of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette national security writer Jack Kelly. Mostly it's because of his title. Chicks dig that war-on-terror stuff, and being a security expert seems like a pretty cushy job. You certainly don't have to be right very often.


Like many pundits, for example, Kelly was sure Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction and would use them against U.S. troops; unlike many pundits, he once predicted that "If we attack Iraq, Iran almost certainly will attack our shipping in the Persian Gulf." Really? He even went on national radio to speculate about whether al-Qaeda might have caused last year's California wildfires.


So if being right doesn't qualify you to be Pittsburgh's terrorism expert, where do you get the credentials?


Thanks to the state, I've found an answer: the recently unveiled "Terrorism Awareness and Prevention" Web site at Created by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the state's health department, the site purports to "help you understand the threat [terrorism poses] to our society, your part in protecting your community, and some commonsense measures you can take."


More importantly, it offers several quizzes to test your knowledge about terrorism, and I'm proud to say I scored between 82 and 100 percent on each. That alone should qualify me as an expert on national security. Plus, I never thought Iran would attack U.S. shipping interests.


Actually, I'd have scored even higher, but some of the wrong answers were too fun to ignore. One question asked "What could be a long-term goal of terrorism?" and offered the multiple-choice options "better education," "lower taxes," and "an independent homeland."  I guessed "lower taxes," on the belief that supply-side economics has wreaked more havoc than, say, people who want the South to secede again. But apparently, such secessionist movements are the only plausible justification for terrorist activity. (My advice as a terror expert: Call the Office of Homeland Security whenever Lynyrd Skynyrd comes on the radio.)


Other questions, meanwhile, were just plain silly: One possible answer to the question "How do terrorists choose their victims?" was "referrals."




And as a newly minted terrorism expert, I found some of the site's material to be dubious. Almost as dubious as Jack Kelly's Dec. 28 column, in which he claimed that damning reports about Iraq's WMD capabilities will be released "at just about the time Dean wraps up the Democratic nomination."


I mean, consider this question from the on-line quiz: "Which of the following can be used as a weapon of mass destruction? A. machine gun; B. chemical storage tanks; C. bombs; D. all of the above."


I went with "B." Judging by the Bush administration's rhetoric, "weapons of mass destruction" are only weapons other people use. Since our side uses bombs and machine guns, they shouldn't count, right? But I'd forgotten the first rule of any multiple-choice test: always choose "all of the above." It seems that for testing purposes, machine guns count as WMD too. I guess we found WMD in Iraq after all, and Kelly was right -- they did use them on our troops.


If the government plays fast and loose with the definition of WMD, its definition of "terrorists" is even slippier. To its credit, the state's Web site tries to discourage ethnic stereotypes about terrorism: It features a link to a report about crimes directed against Muslims, and it includes a photo gallery featuring terrorists from various ethnicities. Muslims are just as likely to be terrorism suspects as anyone else.


Which, arguably, is exactly the problem.


"Law enforcement often feels the greatest terrorist threat is from ‘single issue' or ‘special interest' groups," the site asserts. Many voters would no doubt agree. But the "special interests" the site has in mind aren't Halliburton or Enron. The most likely threat to our way of life, it says, comes from extremist "environmentalists, animal rights, pro-life, anti-nuclear/anti-war groups, gay rights, [and] anti-geneticists (opposed to genetically altered crops)."


Of course, the site notes that many of these causes have mainstream support, and that only a few extremists break the law. Still as a terror expert, I feel I'm entitled to question the priorities here. Other than keeping Liza Minelli's career afloat, I can't think of a single act of terror I can blame on same-sex couples. Surely the "greatest threat" to our way of life comes from Al-Qaeda, not the gay-rights movement. Unless you're Rick Santorum.


Some pro-lifers have bombed clinics, of course, and some extremist environmentalists have spiked trees and torched SUV dealers. But should we really put a scorched Ford Explorer in the same category of crime as 9/11? According to the state's Web site, we should. "[T]errorist acts may be very low-key," you see.


Since you're not a terror expert like I am, you're probably wondering what a "low-key terrorist act" would consist of. Deadpan, sardonic explosions? Passive-aggressive hijackers who sit quietly the entire flight? ("We shall strike a blow against the unbelievers by not returning our seats to their full, upright positions!") But it turns out that even acts of vandalism and graffiti can be terrorism, depending "on the target and symbolism" of the attack.


I'll say this much: If graffiti counts as a terrorist attack, all of Tom Ridge's "orange alerts" make a lot more sense.


Some vandalism, like a spray-painted "KKK," can strike terror in people's hearts. Then again, we had such crimes before 9/11, only in those days we called them "hate crimes." That was a scary enough name, we thought, and we enacted harsher penalties for crimes targeting people because of their race, religion or sexual orientation. It's only recently we felt obliged to start calling such actions "terrorism."


But once you get to the point where you're identifying some crimes as "low-key terrorism," you wonder whether the word means anything any more. Early on the state's Web site affirms, "One must commit a crime to be a terrorist." But by the time you complete the last test, you get the feeling that a terrorist could be just about anyone who commits a crime.


In fact, as a national security expert, I'd like to see how Attorney General John Ashcroft did on this exam -- especially on material like "it is not illegal for an individual to belong to any group even if other members...have committed terrorist acts." Some of Ashcroft's "war on terror" prosecutions have relied more on guilt by association than on any criminal act. And last November, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of six law-abiding non-profits claiming donations and membership were down due to fears of government harassment.


So if you think it's easy being deemed a terrorism expert, just wait: In a few years, it may be even easier to become a terrorism suspect.


Speaking of Potter's Field


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