In researching Heinlein and other

In researching Heinlein and other science fiction authors’ work during WWII, I corresponded with James Gifford, author of Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion (a 2001 Hugo award nominee). In addition to providing me some further detail on Heinlein’s history and excellent pointers to other sources, he provided the following thoughts on defending against suicide attacks and the road that lies ahead:

A general exposition from my own viewpoint is that there is no way to stop a suicide attack. As the cutline for the graphic novel _Ronin_ put it, “If you intend to die, you can do anything.” All crimes are prevented by one of two things: the fear of death, and the possibility of being detected, caught and punished. If the first is missing, the second is of no consequence… and you have no possible prevention short of mindreading and on-the-spot execution.

The only possible way to prevent a majority of suicide attacks is the road we’re currently on – a severe and (IMHO) highly dangerous intrusion into civil liberties…

If there is a solution, it is to find a combination of technology and intelligence (both kinds) that will protect us while not overly impinging on our personal freedoms and our justly prized liberty. As the gent with the specs put it: those who would give up a little liberty to obtain a little security deserve neither. Our liberty and freedom have a price, and for the next decades, the price will have to be paid. One price or the other, that is, and since there is no way to eliminate the threat, paying in the coin of liberty in an attempt to do so is a foolish idea. It is, unfortunately, the road we have apparently chosen.

So, if you seek to put together a coalition of inventive brains to solve the problem, they need a focus beyond technological miracles. I can’t imagine any techno-magic of any kind whatsoever that would solve the problem without creating a bigger one. The solution, if there is one, is to eliminate the strife, the conflict, the disagreements that lead to suicide attacks.

Definitely. But the key is that our strategy must simultaneously include steps to protect us from those that wish us harm in the here-and-now, and also strive to create a future world where the threats we face today are reduced — if not outright elminated.

Despite my usual warnings about lumping people into large categories, I think there are only really two groups that are terribly helpful to think about when considering our adversaries in this struggle. There are people who detest us and will oppose us until death (Al Qaeda). And there are people who don’t like us much, who might be convinced to support those opposing us, or might otherwise be swayed to leave us the hell alone (much of the rest of the Muslim world).

The solution for the first group is, obviously, to destroy them. And it is important to note that this is not vengeance: it is prevention. When we kill an Al-Qaeda operative, there is no need to invoke the obscenity of September 11 and concepts of retribution, revenge, or even justice. We take that grave action — to end another human life — not for what Al-Queda has done to us in the past, but for what they have sworn to do to us in the future. It is not capital punishment; the proper analogy is not to a convicted prisoner walking death row, but to a rapist who is shot dead by his intended victim before he can commit his crime.

For the second group, the options are more varied and complex. I am a firm believer in the idea that while stable democracies may actually go to war with one another from time to time, they don’t have a habit of spawning suicide bombers. (Note: before someone points it out, England is a stable democracy — Northern Ireland is not). So, duh: the trick is how to transition the essentially medieval societies of theocratic Islamic or pseudo-Islamic states (my by-no-means-complete list begins with Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and of course, the portion of Arabia currently ruled by the House of Saud) into stable democracies. Easier said than done.

But we shouldn’t get hung up on the idea that we must turn every state and people on the globe into our ally. That would be great, but it is not necessary. They can positively detest us. They can think we’re callow, insipid, jingoistic cowboys with brains programmed by Disney and bodies atrophied by the Internet. All that matters is that they don’t quite hate us enough to be willing to die to kill us.

And that, I think, has to be an achievable goal. Because let’s face it: it’s not like we’re trying to convince the world to like Nazis. We happen to have the advantage here of being one of the most legitimately decent societies to ever stride the face of the planet. Surely we can do a better job of convincing folks of that than we have to date (as a story, it has the advantage of being true.)

Finally, to return to one James’ points: I agree that technogadgetry is unlikely to provide any direct solution to the problem of preventing suicide attacks. But for now, I’d rest easier knowing that we at least had confidence that we’ve given our own defenses a thorough shake-down, and analyzed our own weaknesses unflinchingly. We’d at least, then, have accomplished the first step of preventing an enemy attack: knowing where it might come from.