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12/10/02

THE RUBE GOLDBERG WAR ON TERRORISM

By Sheldon Drobny

Device to Keep You from Forgetting to Mail Your Wife's Letter

Since the attacks of 9/11 and the deployment of our so-called “war on terrorism” strategy, I have often thought of the great Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Rube Goldberg.  Goldberg  (1883-1970) was a beloved national figure as well as an often-quoted radio and television personality during his 60-year professional career.  Through his “inventions,” Rube Goldberg showed difficult ways to achieve results that should be easy.  His cartoons were  “…symbols of man's capacity for exerting maximum effort to accomplish minimal results.”  Rube believed that there were two ways to do things: the simple way and the hard way.    He also noted that a surprising number of people opted to do things the hard way.  So allow me to connect how our leaders’ actions regarding the “war on terrorism” clearly manifest Rube Goldberg's observations.

The first over-complication was calling the effort to stop terrorism a war.  The term war in this case is essentially symbolic, analogous to its use in well-known phrases such as “war on drugs” and “war on poverty.”  In these examples, the euphemism is easy to distinguish.  We certainly were not going to attack the poor in fighting the war on poverty.  In the case of terrorism, many of our leaders and their supporters purposely believe that terrorism can be fought in the literal context of the word “war,” albeit a long and different kind of war.  If Rube Goldberg were alive today, I wonder what cartoon he would have depicted to describe this sample of man's capacity to do things the hard way.

On 9/11, Americans for the first time were awakened to the tragedy of terrorism.  This is because it finally hit home; it was New York City, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania, after all.  However, terrorism is far from new to the rest of the world, and countries that experience this type of human suffering are unfortunately commonplace.  Israel is one of the best examples of a country currently being devastated in human and economic terms by direct acts of terrorism.  Israel's response to date has been to fight terrorism head on and directly with traditional military and police forces.  For every terrorist attack inflicted on Israel a counter-attack in the form of a military incursion is planned and executed as retaliation to specific acts of terrorism.  Israel's literal war on terrorism by use of military force has not worked and will not work.  As America's military approach to terrorism is doomed to similar fate and failure.  Both Rube Goldberg, posthumously, and I are certain of the almost assured complete failure of a military approach to terrorism.  But, we will march down this doomed trail and assuredly incur significant human and economic cost before we realize whether a simpler, effective, and less costly method of fighting terrorism is available.

It is axiomatic that one of the principal causes of terrorism, as well as crime, is poverty.   The grassroots support of terrorists emanates from extreme hopelessness, which in turn causes people to do the most extreme things.  During World War II, the freedom fighters were in essence terrorists fighting for a cause that to them was worth risking their lives.  They murdered and bombed German military and civilian populations without any regard for innocent human life.  Why?  Because the oppression of Nazi occupation gave them so much hopelessness that their only alternative was indiscriminate terrorism.  The behavior of these terrorists has been viewed positively in our history books.

The Germans chose to fight this terrorism by conventional military means.  For every terrorist act that was inflicted upon the Nazis, there was commensurate military reaction and retaliation.  The Nazis actually thought that they could win their war against terrorism by using military retaliation.  The strategy failed then, and its use allows us to reach the conclusion that it should fail now.  Of course, the Nazis were unwilling to recognize that the root cause of these attacks was extreme hopelessness.  So, if we do not understand that people who are hopeless are willing to inflict terrorist acts, we will never understand completely how easy it is for terrorist leaders to recruit out of the immense pools of hopeless people.  To put it in extreme terms, if the US were to successfully invade and occupy every country that breeds terrorism, we would be adding kindle to the fire.  These newly occupied countries will still have at least as much terrorism as they do today, and potentially more, unless living conditions improve for the citizens of those countries.

Here is a simple solution to the problem that Rube Goldberg would see as the real solution to worldwide terrorism.  If you want to get rid of crime and terrorism, provide hope to hopeless people.  The moneys wasted on military expenditures to fight war that we probably have no chance of winning, should be, instead, completely re-deployed towards aiding countries in democratizing their governments and feeding their people.  All countries should engage in a collective process of seeking out terrorists by using local police forces.   The local police departments have a much better chance than the FBI, CIA and the armed forces to find these terrorist cells.  They have their ears to the ground and their feet on the street.  We should invest as much money as possible in local police activity rather than providing for an enormous policing bureaucracy that is certain to be ineffective in finding terrorists in America and around the world.  In my city, the local police know where teenage underage drinking takes place.

With more funding and focus, they could surely weed out any terrorists.

As we learned in Viet Nam, people with a cause are willing to die in unlimited numbers if they feel hopeless.  Just as those under the Nazi occupation were willing to die, so it is for all hopeless people in the world.  So let's invest all resources possible to help countries democratize and help their citizenry.  Let's also aim to understand that terrorism is a criminal act best handled by local police, as is the case with most criminal activity.  The local police know their communities and have a far better chance of catching the terrorists with greater resources and dedication.   If the United States was willing to set the example for the world community, and make serious contributions towards eliminating hopelessness by non-military means, we would have a serious chance to greatly reduce crime and terrorism.

Are you listening Rube?

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Sheldon Drobny is co-founder of Air America Radio, providing talk radio for the majority of Americans.

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