Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The Al Qaeda Obsession

If you read the following posting through to the end, you will see that it relates to the health care theme of this blog. Well, sort of anyway.

As spectacular theater, the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 surpassed by a wide margin anything the world had ever seen. That a small band of men, driven by demons we cannot comprehend, would have both the imagination and the audacity to do what they did truly boggles the mind. And that they should do it in full sight of millions of people all across the world, thanks to the marvels of modern television, made it all the more gripping.

But as a human calamity, it was relatively small beer. Measured on any international or historical scale, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, epidemics, genocidal conflicts, and other catastrophes regularly wipe out multiples of the nearly 3,000 victims who perished on that fateful day. As a taker of human life, it is even dwarfed by routine daily events like medical errors, automobile accidents, and urban violence.

Yet it has so mesmerized our collective consciousness as to dominate the political life of our country, both domestically and internationally, during what will soon be three years since the historic tragedy that goes by the simple sobriquet 9/11. In fact, it may well turn out to be the defining issue of our upcoming presidential election.

9/11 has been given the status of continuing threat by a terrorist entity known as Al Qaeda. The fact that nobody quite knows what Al Qaeda is, who is in it, how it works, what it is up to, or the whereabouts of its self-proclaimed leader Osama bin Ladin, seems only to add to its fear-inducing mystique.

My ten years of living and working in the Arab Middle East causes me to view all of this with considerable skepticism. For example, anyone with managerial experience will know that running an organization is not easy in the best of circumstances. People are prone to jealousy, backbiting, insubordination, overweening ambition, treachery and other behaviors that detract from organizational effectiveness. Imagine, then, trying to run an organization of fanatical individuals of different nationalities who are scattered across the globe and who are from cultures in which, based on my observations, such values as discipline, trust, diligence, and loyalty – all critical to organizational success - are notoriously weak. Imagine further having to do so secretly and against the active opposition of almost every government in the world.

It may be that an attack involving sophisticated means like nerve gas, deadly bacteria, or nuclear weapons will arise out of the confusion, disorganization, and general amorphousness inherent in such a situation. But it seems highly improbable. More credence can be given to the possibility of truck bombs (potentially devastating enough as we learned in Oklahoma City and the first attack on the World Trade Center) and efforts like that of the Richard Reid, the hapless and unsuccessful shoe bomber.

Given the obsession about all of this that has consumed the American people, it is to be expected that politicians and the media will milk it for all it is worth.

Ordinary folks, on the other hand, would be well advised to put some proportion to it. When somebody threatens violence against us, it is only prudent to take measures to protect ourselves. But it ought to be possible to leave that to agencies like the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency, which probably now have more agents on the case than Al Qaeda has active members.

In the meantime, the rest of us should be worrying about our automobiles, our doctors, and our inner city hoodlums, which are sure to kill more Americans than Al Qaeda terrorists could even dream of.

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