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Welcome Backlash Against Security Theater And Overhyping Of Fear

After 9-11, columnists from across the political spectrum were writing defenses of torture, calls for reducing liberty to achieve security and exhortations for the bombing of any number of Muslim nations. Today, a few of those still crop up every now and again. But reliable establishment weathervane David Brooks offers something different in the wake of the failed underpants bombing, shocking in its reasonableness, that could represent a shift away from the hysteria and bedwetting that often reveals itself during any discussion of terrorism.

That mature attitude seems to have largely vanished. Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved. We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t […]

All this money and technology seems to have reduced the risk of future attack. But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity.

Resilient societies have a level-headed understanding of the risks inherent in this kind of warfare.

But, of course, this is not how the country has reacted over the past week. There have been outraged calls for Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security to resign, as if changing the leader of the bureaucracy would fix the flaws inherent in the bureaucracy. There have been demands for systemic reform — for more protocols, more layers and more review systems.

Much of the criticism has been contemptuous and hysterical. Various experts have gathered bits of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s biography. Since they can string the facts together to accurately predict the past, they thunder, the intelligence services should have been able to connect the dots to predict the future.

It’s hard to argue with any of this. The finger-pointing that accompanied Abdulmutallab’s failed attack was fairly ridiculous, the calls for Napolitano’s head resulting from a deliberate misinterpretation of her remarks and an attempt to hold her responsible for actions taken in Amsterdam and Lagos. Believe it or not, both Brooks and David Fercryinoutloud Broder understood this today (though in Broder’s case it seems like he was charmed by Napolitano at a cocktail party or something).

As Digby smartly notes, the point of terrorism is to create the kind of hysterical responses that help a nation destroy itself from within. The threats from without cannot do it alone. The proper response to terror is a calm and reasoned assessment of the system without the kind of hyperventilating that sends the country off the deep end. That the political punditocracy is at least at some level understanding this is encouraging.

What remains to be seen is whether there will be a backlash against the rampant politicization of the issue by national Republicans. At this point, I’ll just be pleased if it doesn’t lead to further loss of individual privacy.

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David Dayen

David Dayen