The Decline in Homegrown Terror

The LA Times has got a fascinating article on the decline of homegrown American terror groups in the post-9/11 era. This paragraph alone is worth the price of admission:

John Trochmann, once an omnipresent face of hatred for the government, still has the iron-gray beard and fiery eyes from the days when he helped found the Militia of Montana. Today he drives a 13-year-old black Suburban to gun shows in the Pacific Northwest to hawk anti-government pamphlets or sell log cabins to get by. He still believes, but at 64, he doesn’t act.

“9/11,” he said in an interview at his home near Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. “Boy, did it ever change things.”

The article portrays the 90’s as a sort of “golden age” of violent American extremist groups. It seems intuitively obvious how American prosperity and hegemony, when combined with the radical acceleration of post-industrial globalisation, could provoke the sort of reactionary violence the decade witnessed. (In some respects, the decade served as a bookend to the far-left extremism that accompanied the cultural transformations of the 60’s). With the disappearance of the existential threat represented by the Soviet Union, America itself became the threat to people who needed one to make sense of the world. The same logic, interestingly enough, informed the foreign-based extremism that eventually evolved into the network responsible for WTC 1, the Nairobi/Dar es Salaam bombings, the USS Cole, and 9/11.

The article attributes the decline of domestic terrorism not to the appearance of the real threat of foreign terrorism, which was in fact concurrent, but to the symbolic appearance of an existential threat represented by 9/11. We might draw a lesson from that in terms of the psychological aspect of our counter-terrorism policy. There will always be a certain amount of ambient anti-Americanism around the world due to the nature of our global presence. But in responding to the real threats we face, we should be careful not to provide the sort of galvanizing effect to our enemies that they gave us.

I’m thinking about the invasion of Iraq, in particular, but also about the use of regime change in Afghanistan. For a while I’ve been wondering what that campaign might have looked like had we simply cordoned off the southeast of the country, flushed out the Al Qaeda training camps, and come home. Symbolically, the Bush doctrine responded to the emotional needs of the moment. But I’m not sure it has served us well strategically.