An MSNBC article on the follow-up from this weekend's anti-terror activity in the UK got me thinking a bit about the role of the CIA and the very difficult path the agency must walk.
This weekend's events should serve as proof there is a continuing threat in the West of attacks aimed at causing mass casualties and massier-mass panic and confusion. As we've said before, the Brits have long experience with this sort of threat, longer than anyone except the Israelis. And if today's bad guys are more violent and less scrupulous than the PIRA boyos were, the general idea remains the same.
For that reason, the Brits are used to seeing troops armed with automatic weapons wandering around airport terminals, armored vehicles parked up outside public buildings, and swarms of police in raid jackets smashing down suburban doors in the middle of the night.
Americans, on the other hand, are used to seeing none of those things. In the US, cameras mounted on traffic signals to catch red-light runners bring Orwellian comparisons as rebuttal. Mention facial-recognition software or national ID cards around here, and you immediately hear how our government now resembles a South American military dictatorship.
The CIA gets hammered constantly for being the jackbooted storm troopers of the new Galactic Empire. Illegal imprisonment, illegal rendition of illegal detainees to countries which have slightly fewer qualms about using "aggressive interrogation methods", questionable information gathering techniques, and other potentially Constitution-stretching practices are all assumed and bandied about in the national media and local conversation.
But the mission at the CIA is to protect America. How does one do that in the current environment? Does taking the high road, ensuring your morals are, well, moral, following the letter of the law protect America from sworn enemies who are encumbered by none of those things? Do our security agencies have to wade into the same moral cesspool as the bad guys to effectively fight them?
Forcing an open fight with cockroaches like AQ doesn't work. If you question that, see Tora Bora, Mogadishu, and Fallujah for reference. Or, for that matter, Qana, Gaza, and other Middle East garden spots. We're never going to get these guys on the Field of Honor. From their perspective, Katyushas and Kalashnikovs don't stack up well against M1A1s, cluster munitions, and Apache helicopters.
So, the battle is in the dark, on the periphery, using stealth and surprise. And there are no rules. Civilians are fair game (hell, the preferred game - they don't shoot back). There's no front line. Airports, population centers, soft targets in general are all in play.
If that's the case, don't the "good guys" (based on perspective) have to "take the fight to the bad guys"?
Or do the "good guys", by moving into the gray area, casting aside some of their moral guidelines, sinking to the level of the enemy, do they become what they seek to destroy?
The arguments on both sides make sense to me. It's not an easy question.
Here's how it boils down for me: If (when?) the "bad guys" manage to pull off another attack which kills 3,000+ American civilians, the American people are going to want action. They aren't going to worry about civility or the high ground or What Would Jesus Do. They're going to want some heads mounted on some pikes. If that's the case, shouldn't the "good guys" do all they can (ALL they can) to prevent such an action? If they don't, won't the American people ask them why they didn't? And if morally ambiguous action is justified under those circumstances (btw, I'm not so sure it is, but go with me here), isn't it justified now?
Crisis sharpens perceptions. On Sept 12, 2001, the "bad guys" were black, we were white (and I'm not referring to skin color), so let's go git 'em. When passions cool, it's no longer so easy. To avoid more of the angst in the future, I think we have to do all we can to prevent another crisis.
Sorta makes you misty for the good old Cold War, where good and evil were clearly defined, doesn't it?