Responding to Terrorism

The events of September 11, 2001, may not have marked the beginning of international terrorism in the history of the world or of the United States, but they did mark the beginning of an era where Americans began to truly recognize and respond to their own vulnerabilities to terrorism – both factual and perceptual.  The decade that has followed has seen powerful debate between proponents of security and proponents of liberty with a resulting divide between the two positions that may never truly be bridged and an almost ironic conflict between the historically used conflict model of criminal justice and the crime control model that many feel is appropriate to prevent and counter terrorism.  One current issue of critical debate centers on security screenings of passengers entering commercial airports in the United States.

We do not create terrorism by fighting the terrorists.  We invite terrorism by ignoring them.”  – George W. Bush

George W. Bush and his supporters have long argued that we must simultaneously fight terrorism in foreign training and recruiting theaters while seeking to identify, locate and dismantle terrorist operations domestically before new attacks can be carried out.  Supporters argue that, much like operating an automobile, traveling by commercial air is not an inalienable right but instead a choice we make and within that choice we may choose to relinquish a small measure of privacy to gain a significant increase in security.  As such, the Transportation Security Administration must “continue to deploy risk-based security measures [both seen and unseen] to protect the traveling public” with an understanding that “the safety and security of the American people is [their] highest priority” (TSA, 2010).  Proponents of increase security measures, such as advanced imaging technology machines (body scanners), fully body pat downs and carry-on restrictions view the security measures as a broad brushed mild inconvenience that seriously reduces the potential threat avenues used in terrorism related events such as 9/11 and more recent episodes where explosives passed through security onto commercial passenger airlines.  Polls citing majorities and sometimes vast majorities of respondents who are in favor of increased security measures to prevent terrorist attacks are published and cited on a regular basis. In the eyes of security proponents, a slight inconvenience in time spent combined with a standardized and mildly intrusive search is a small price to pay compared to the risks of a potential terrorist attack.

I think what’s going on in Guantanamo Bay and other places is a disgrace to the U.S.A.  I wouldn’t say it’s the cause of terrorism, but it has given impetus and excuses to potential terrorists to lash out at our country and justify their despicable acts.” – Jimmy Carter

Opponents to increased security measures and military as a response to terrorism see many of the measures deployed as an unfair and unjustified infringement upon the Constitutional rights of people to be secure in their persons from unnecessary search and seizure and protection from deprivation of life, liberty and property without due process of law.  They fear what they believe to be a slippery slope of civil rights deprivation in the name of security supported by fear of events that, albeit tragic, are extremely rare.  Arguments used by opponents of increased security measures at airports cite the unproven effectiveness and reported failures of “high-tech gimmicks and identity-based security” while calling for “procedures that pose the least threat to our civil liberties and are also proven to be effective” (ACLU, 2010).  Citing to the founding principles and one of the founding fathers of our nation, Benjamin Franklin, opponents to many of the added security measures quote that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Current federal law states that terrorism includes violent criminal acts that “appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government” (18 USC §2331(1)).  The commercial airline attacks of September 11, 2001, had all three results found within our legal definition of terrorism where only one is required.  The citizens of the United States truly felt the fear of terrorism that had been impacting other countries for decades or longer.  The policies of the United States changed almost overnight with the passage of the Patriot Act, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and the unification of airport security under the Transportation Security Administration.  The U.S. government declared a “war on terrorism” and moved the target of one of the world’s largest standing militaries onto the Middle East.  As the proverbial dust began to settle, many Americans lost focus on the concept of terrorism as a global economic recession began to have a more personal effect at home.  A newly elected president called for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison, yet the voice of the people for economic stability and job growth far overpowered the voice of those who some claimed were being deprived of unalienable human rights.

When a person is humiliated, when his rights are being violated, and he does not have the proper education, naturally he gravitates toward terrorism.” – Shirin Ebadi

Christmas Day came, a holiday where nearly all governmental operations and many businesses in the United States come to a standstill to celebrate one of the primary holidays of the country’s predominant religion, along with another commercial passenger airline attack.  In this case the pronounced terrorist and unlawful combatant concealed nearly eighty grams of PETN explosive between his genitals and his underwear and attempted to detonate the improvised explosive device on the plane, resulting only in setting himself and a portion of the passenger area of the airplane on fire.  Citing the failed attempt, security measures were put into place that began to require passengers to submit to an intimate full body image scan or invasive full body “pat down” search that included the breasts, buttocks and genitals.  Cries of alarm were raised from privacy and civil rights advocates almost immediately, denouncing the effectiveness and need of the invasive and intimate searches that would soon become routine for commercial air travelers.  Yet, government officials moved forward with the added security measures noting all of the arguments for increased security to ensure the safety of passengers and crew even though a test explosion on an identical model aircraft showed that the aircraft would not have suffered catastrophic damage and would have been able to land safely even if the improvised explosive device containing eighty grams of PETN had successfully and efficiently detonated during flight (BBC, 2010).  As an explosives expert would have likely been able to calculate the amount of PETN required to destroy a commercial aircraft in flight, one must wonder if the true intent of the attack was achieved – to coerce the United States into routine, invasive and intimate searches of its citizens in apparent violation of its founding principles.

Based on my understanding of both sides of the issues I can agree that terrorist attacks require a measured and appropriate response while also agreeing that said response does not necessated the reduction of protections afforded to citizens of and visitors to the United States.  I believe that blanketed responses do not increase security in as much as they foster a sense of fear and distrust.  Human intelligence gathered through tried and true methods combined with conduct and behavioral profiling has both succeeded in law enforcement operations against violent crimes and contraband trafficking as well as the tests of law and founding principles as applied through the appellate and supreme courts.  The problem, as I see it, is that both camps on these issues refuse to move from their positions towards a collaborative effort that would, inevitably, result in compromise on both sides but could ultimately result in an increase in safety and decrease in risk without an effect on civil liberties and freedoms of citizens as a whole.


Technology and Liberty: Airport Security.  (November 17, 2010).  Retrieved on January 15, 2010, from the American Civil Liberties Union:

Boeing 747 survives simulated ‘Flight 253’ bomb blast.  (March 5, 2010).  Retrieved on January 15, 2010, from the BBC News:

TSA Statement On Aviation Security Measures.  (December 23, 2010).  Retrieved on January 14, 2010, from the Transportation Security Administration:

© 2011 – 2014, Jeremy Liebbe. All rights reserved.

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About the author

Jeremy Liebbe holds a Master of Science in Forensic Psychology, holds a Bachelor of Arts in Police Science, and is currently completing a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. He has over a decade of law enforcement investigative experience as a detective sergeant with experience including narcotics, crimes against children, and homicide investigations. As a result of his expertise in complex criminal investigations and forensic mental health Jeremy has earned numerous commendations, lectured throughout Texas and in several other states, authored and co-authored over a half dozen published papers, and has provided expert testimony in over a dozen felony trials.