Friday, June 22, 2007

Israel v. the US

Imagine that you're on the highway, driving in to a major city, like New York. All of sudden, traffic comes to a complete standstill. Nothing moving at all. You tune your radio to the news to find out what's causing the jam and hear the police chief of NYC announcing that there is solid evidence that a terrorist is heading into NYC and that all roads have been blocked off and the city closed to impede the terrorist's access to the city. The police officer announces that helicopters will bring in water and be capable of extracting anyone in need of medical care, but that because the terrorist may already be on the road, no one is allowed to pull off of the highway so that each car may be examined and searched.

It's hard to know what would happen first: A mass panic or a lawsuit from the ACLU. This is but one of the critical differences between the US and the Israeli approaches to the problem each faces from terrorism.

Without question, Israel is subjected to a more regular threat. While things are relatively quiet now, largely due to the construction of the security fence around the West Bank, the withdrawal from Gaza, and the infighting between Hamas and Fatah, there were 135 (according to my count) suicide bombings in Israel between the outbreak of the second intifida in November 2000 and the Gaza pullout. It boggles the mind to think what would happen in the US if there were even four or five suicide bombings a year, let alone 44 like Israel suffered in 2002.

That difference has produced a big difference in reactions. First, Israel doesn't have time or the resources to waste on efforts that assuage public fears but accomplish little in actual security. So, security on El Al, the Israeli national airline, doesn't bother making you pack teeny bottles of liquids in plastic bags. Rather, as you stand in line to check in, someone walks up and down swabbing bags and people for explosives. Profiling is used as well. Not the blunt kind, but a more common sense kind. When I was on the way back to the US in Ben Gurion Airport, one of my colleagues on the trip caused a minor kerfuffle when he revealed that he had not received his commemorative book bag in the US with the rest of us, but rather in Israel (he had gone to Israel a few days before the group...the rest of us got our bags in the Newark Airport). After a security manager looked at his bag and asked a few questions, he became convinced everything was fine, no doubt because he wasn't worried about a group of academics from the States.

Armed guards stand at the entrance to nearly every restaurant or public place, like shopping malls, and stop everyone entering and inspect their bags. Restaurants are, in fact, allowed by law to charge a security surcharge, which is optional and can be refused (but no one does).

These are merely the tactical differences. One key strategic difference is that Israel does not have a national strategy or policy for combating terror; rather it makes and changes policies as needed. Not having a formal strategy enables Israel to be more flexible; it encourages free thinking among the various agencies and operatives responsible for protecting the country. The US, on the other hand, has, among other ponderous and platitudinous documents, a National Strategy for Combating Terrorism. But reading it doesn't provide any guidance on how to actually deal with the problem of terror, and it certainly doesn't ask the question of what is the nature of the threat to the US posed by global terrorism. And it doesn't explain how Old MacDonald's Petting Zoo or the Amish Country Popcorn Factory get on a federal list of potential terror targets, or how Indiana is ranked as nearly having more potential terror targets (8,591) than New York (5,687) and California (3,212) combined.

Israel even has a saner legal strategy for dealing with terror. Israel has one of most activist court systems in the western world, and terror subjects, or those defending them, often have direct access to the Supreme Court. Furthermore, while Israel uses the "unlawful combatant" designation, as does the US (this is done to prevent suspected terrorist from having access to the traditional civilian justice system, which Israel has deemed inadequate for dealing with questions of terror). However, anyone designated as an unlawful combatant is given counsel and brought before a judge for the opportunity to challenge that designation, and the suspect has the right to appeal the judge's decision. As I mentioned in an earlier post, any use of coercive force during an interrogation must be authorized by the Army's legal department and the Attorney General's office.

Now, it's true that Israel has been dealing with the problem of terror longer than has the US, and has had more time to develop a rational and effective policy, as well as more opportunities to use trial and error to implement good policies. But the fact remains that Israel approaches the problem much more rationally and effectively than does the US. Too much of American counter-terror efforts, at least those seen by the public, are reactive and primarily for show. How else to explain full-page ads in the New York Times explaining how people can prepare a room in their house in case of a chemical or biological attack? [I can't find a link to these ads...but I saw 'em!!] Benjamin Friedman has a devastating critique [RR] of the Department of Homeland Security, arguing that the US counter-terror response is more about responding to, and creating, fear than it is about providing real and meaningful security.

The threats faced by Israel are different than those faced by the US. As are the political systems and the public's willingness to tolerate restrictions of freedoms. In some ways, Israel is more aggressive in its fight against terror, as with the constant presence of security guards. That reflects a rational response to the type of threat faced. In other ways, Israel is more relaxed than is the US, for example, in its willingness to give every "unlawful combatant" a chance to challenge that designation, something that the Bush Administration is unwilling to do. That reflects the recognition that terror, and even high levels of terrorism, can be borne without the collapse of society.

No comments: