Friday, March 12, 2004

Claiming Credit Where Credit is Due?

One thing that continues to mystify me about the terrorist mindset is the following sequence, which may be used in whole or in part:

  1. Terrorist group makes somewhat vague threat with just enough detail to make a lot of people nervous.
  2. Terrorist attack (possibly not by original terrorist group that made the threat) of some sort occurs.
  3. Terrorist group (possibly not either the group that made the threat nor the one that made the attack) takes credit for the attack. Another terrorist group (possibly the one that made the threat and/or made the attack) denies responsibility.
The train bomb attacks in Spain offer the latest in this puzzling dynamic.

If we're to approach the attacks as a criminal investigation, and look at them purely forensically, the strong finger of suspicion ought to be pointed at the ETA. Since their operatives were caught recently smuggling explosives into Madrid, they have a much stronger local motive than anyone else, and their pattern has been to attack in public places shortly before elections -- and then often to deny any involvement -- I would think a good cop might start with them as the primary suspects.

But in this case, ETA is disclaiming responsibility, a fringe Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group is claiming responsibility (with a history of taking credit for other groups' actions), and at the same time many pundits and analysts are hinting or just out and out claiming it's Al Qaeda without much direct evidence thus far.

Of course, one of the problems with attributing a terrorist attack to a group is that most terrorist groups don't have identifiable public affairs offices (unlike most organized state armies). For once there seems to be some caution at the White House in attributing the attacks to Al Qaeda, but somehow I don't think this is going to stop the President from mentioning the incident in vague terms on the campaign trail. The rhetoric about the "joint war on terrorism" is still flying.

My continuing problem with treating terrorism like a "war" is twofold. First off, it lumps internationalist anarchist movements like Al Qaeda with leadership structures with local insurrections (like ETA) that have a more clearly identifiable and immediate political goal. "War" is made, by definition, by a state. The second is that in the language of "war" as well as its means (using armies, etc. instead of police tactics), it's ineffective in stopping the crimes.

The whole issue of "credit" in a terrorist bombing or campaign is really at the heart of why this should be treated as organized crime and not as a "war". Credit, or lack of credit, seems to be a slippery thing designed to trump up the profile of a criminal group -- to put it on a political plane, to give itself legitimacy -- while the act is purely to instill fear and cripple society. Crime is a fearsome enough thing, particularly mass murder. But the personal and organized reaction to crime is different from that of war. The US is not on a war footing -- otherwise we'd be suspending production of, say, civilian Hummers to make armored Hummers for our troops, and we wouldn't be cutting taxes and engaging in boondoggle election year spending. Come to think of it, we're not on an anti-crime footing, either, since the current administration has eviscerated the Clinton-era programs to put more cops and firefighters on streets and overmandated Homeland Security responses while underfunding "retail" crime fighting at the state and local level.

The 9/11 commission -- not even to speak of the Plame investigation, or the intelligence findings investigation -- is being horribly tainted by politics, because the guys in charge in the current administration are already convinced of the conclusions to be drawn. They want "credit" to fall in a certain area and "blame" in another.

As Joe Friday used to say, it's just the facts that count. That's what good criminal investigation is about. That's how criminals and gangs get put away. "War" is inherently political, and treating this current struggle like a war inevitably politicizes the way it's fought, so it no longer becomes about the facts and instead becomes about the desired conclusions. To my mind, that's dangerous.

In the meantime, let's let the Spanish police do their work and work the problem to find out who's at the bottom of this heinous crime of mass murder, and work on getting justice for the Spanish people, and hold off on conclusions about the "war" on terrorism until the facts are clear.

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