Be Prepared: Terrorism Today

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A series of bombings in Volgograd, Russia killed 34 people on December 29 and 30, terrorizing the country as it prepares to host this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi. The attack was tragic and horrifying, but another disturbing event flew under the radar even as the dust settled over Volgograd. As families mourned lost loved ones, Russian police officers and paramilitary agencies detained more than 700 people. [1]

Though Russia’s mass detentions may be emblematic of wider political problems in the country, more liberal democracies are far from immune to overreaction following terrorist attacks. After all, the United States wasted no time in passing the infamous PATRIOT Act in the wake of 9/11. [2] Even the rights set forth in the US Constitution failed to stop Congress from approving a system of mass surveillance that the general public has only now started to uncover.

While people still debate the merits of the PATRIOT Act today, people often forget a crucial fact about the law—how quickly it was passed. After its introduction to the House on October 2, 2001, the bill flew through Congress, and President Bush signed it into law on October 26. [3] Congress had to draft, analyze, debate, revise, and present to the public a 132-page-long bill in less than a month. In short, Congress rushed the legislative process to react to 9/11. They acted in the heat of the moment to stop a worse tragedy in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in US history.

It was an understandable reaction, but the constitutional abuses in the years following 9/11 do not offer a ringing endorsement of the PATRIOT Act. That leaves society with a question: How do we avoid passing misguided legislation like the PATRIOT Act, while still granting the government the power to respond to unthinkable acts of terrorism?

The answer can be captured in a simple maxim: “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.” To avoid a situation where Congress must draft legislation during a state of emergency, Congress should write precautionary laws today. It should plan for the worst.

Preemptive legislation isn’t a new idea. Governments throughout the world have procedures in place for declaring a state of emergency for wildfires, floods, and hurricanes, and they specifically limit the powers they can seize during those emergencies. However, wildfires and tornados do not inspire the same fear as a terrorist attack. Natural disasters and typical emergencies do not trigger mass detentions and limitless surveillance.

At the same time, terrorism is also a less predictable phenomenon. From subway bombings to sending poison through the mail, terrorists have plenty of tactics on which to rely, so Congress may find it difficult to plan its precise response to some speculative future attack.

Plans don’t have to be perfect to be useful, though, and precautionary legislation need not account for every single possibility. Instead of outlining every contingency and announcing a different plan for each threat, the law should highlight what lines we as a society refuse to cross. Perhaps we will emphatically reject Russia’s mass detention policies. Maybe Congress will deem dragnet phone surveillance off-limits. The final result is less important than the real goal: some measure of stability.

On a fundamental level, terrorism works because it provokes governments into overreacting. Whenever a government steps too far in fighting the latest terrorist threat, its actions provide the terrorists with their next recruitment tool. Global surveillance, violent wars with civilian casualties, and mass detentions all play into the hands of terrorist organizations seeking to malign their enemies. By anticipating that provocation and planning for the next 9/11, we can take the first critical step away from that deadly trap. We can tell the world that the rule of law does not bow to violence. It stands straight and tall before calmly putting the pieces back together.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25580380

[2] http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/PLAW-107publ56/pdf/PLAW-107publ56.pdf

[3] http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d107:H.R.2975:

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