Differentiating Between Police and Military Action

Eric Randolph's article "Al Qaeda: When Any Attack Will Do," (The Agenda, March 23, 2010) implicitly raises the question about differences between police and military action.  This is an important distinction to draw, but is rarely dealt with in discussions about the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Most importantly, Randolph points out that much of the American response in Afghanistan (and presumably Iraq) is about the need of American citizens to "feel safe," rather than a need to combat the actual threats presented by Al Qaeda, etc., per se.  Both the military and police seek to make their home countries feel safe, albeit in very different ways.  The police do it by enforcing a pre-existing set of laws using pre-existing legal structures emerging from a civilian legislative process.  The military does not necessarily need to act within these boundaries, and is used in situations where the strength of the government to administer civilian rule is effectively challenged.

Feeling safe, though, is an emotion, albeit an important one with serious consequences, as American policy since 2001 demonstrates.  The policy problem raised in Randolph’s essay really is: how do you manage the emotions of your public (with respect to fear)?  Notably, making a citizenry feel safe is not necessarily the same as trying to disable decentralized terror networks (whose disruptive violence generates panic).  In the case of Al Qaeda, the American response is that using the military to attack "them" elsewhere is what makes us feel safe, and that it so important that it can be done outside the rule of law.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations generally favor the use of the military for dealing with Al Qaeda and its networks.  Implicitly this means that they concluded that civilian and diplomatic channels were damaged by the attacks, along with the US government’s capacity to respond conventionally.  Military violence also has the advantage of satisfying a fearful American public's demand to “do something”, which trumped the use of police authority anchored in the rule of law. 

When it comes to taking apart the long-term threat of a decentralized terror network focused on sporadic attacks, perhaps the police and courts are better, as Randolph writes. Is this the most effective long-term response?  After all, Al Qaeda, while inflicting some damage and a lot of fear, has never really posed an existential threat to the United States in particular, Europe, or any other country or region of appreciable size.

Nevertheless, both the Bush and Obama administrations are reluctant to use the power of police and courts to assuage such fears, presumably because trials do not have the same immediate cathartic effect among the American population as do drone attacks and other Flash Gordon-style wizardry.  This is too bad, because trials are cathartic for fearful publics in ways that wars half way around the world are not.  Indeed, if the goal is to assuage American fears and calm waters abroad, exposing the ridiculousness of terrorist ideologies with its underwear bombers, shoe bombers, teenage black widows, etc., in open court calms fears more effectively as drone attacks conducted from Langley.  It also has the advantage of making the perpetrators look ridiculous to the home-constituency they seek to impress.  Trials of such characters are why Americans are no longer fearful of the incoherent ideologies of Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, the DC sniper, the Unabomber, or even Zacarias Mousawi.

Or, as Eric Randolph summarized it: "it's also vital that we encourage a little skepticism, as an antidote to the hysteria that Al Qaeda’s random acts provoke."


Tony Waters is the author, most recently, of When Killing is a Crime (Lynne Rienner, 2007), and a Contributing Editor at Current Intelligence.