But it's a mistake to write off the angry amateurs. They're not terribly skilled, but it doesn't take that much skill to kill dozens of people -- as the shootings at Virginia Tech so tragically demonstrate. Attacks such as the Cinema Rex fire are easily repeated, and they don't take the years of onerous training and planning that spectaculars demand.
So how can we stop low-tech terrorism? Unfortunately, better defenses can solve only part of the problem. We should defend the White House, nuclear plants and other high-profile targets that would tempt terrorists to stage a spectacular. But we can't defend every movie theater, synagogue, local government building or shopping mall without spending hundreds of billions of dollars and turning the United States into an armed camp.
That leaves offense -- at home as well as abroad. The FBI has tried to penetrate cells of would-be terrorists, often opening itself to criticism for spending enormous resources on disrupting what seems to be a bunch of bungling blowhards. The bureau should keep at it. Of course, sometimes a ballyhooed terrorism arrest will look foolish when the media reveal the plotters' amateurish plans and backgrounds. But aggressive law enforcement can help prevent these amateurs from becoming something more deadly.
Perhaps the best way to fight low-tech terrorists is through community support. For instance, the FBI began to focus on the "Lackawanna Six," who pleaded guilty in 2003 to providing material support to al-Qaida, after receiving an anonymous letter from a member of the Yemeni community in Lackawanna, N.Y., near Buffalo. But to get these sorts of tips, Arab Americans and Muslim Americans need to see the police as protectors, not persecutors.
In this respect, Europe provides a cautionary tale. Governments there, particularly France's, have spent more time trying to shake down their Muslim communities for intelligence than they've spent reassuring and integrating them. The result? An angry, unassimilated Muslim minority whose fringes produce terrorists while its mainstream often resists police efforts to find them. The U.S. government has a fine line to walk here, too. But when in doubt, we should jettison intrusive measures in favor of those likely to win sustained support from Muslim Americans. Finally, the government needs to talk coolly and calmly to the American people. Complete protection against arson, shootings and low-level bombings is impossible. Americans will have to accept a certain amount of risk in their daily lives, recognizing that effective government policies can reduce the threat but not eliminate it. Public opinion is the fulcrum of counterterrorism. Terrorists -- high-tech and low-tech alike -- rely on overreaction from a rattled public and government to do their dirty work. We shouldn't indulge them.
About the author: Daniel L. Byman is director of Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
(China Post -- 05/10/07)