Tuesday, April 02, 2002

New York Times scribbler Nick "Sue Saddam" Kristof has written yet another foolish column about the Middle East. Most of it is pretty much self-refuting, but one error is worth debunking explicitly, because it's widely enough believed that it has become something of a cliche at this point. "While Mr. Sharon talks about removing the 'infrastructure' of terrorism," he writes, "the real infrastructure is simply the rage and frustration of ordinary Palestinians. Many of the suicide bombs are made of sugar and fertilizer and cost less than $150 to produce."

Let's examine this claim a little more carefully. Suppose that some Mahmoud al-Disgruntled in a random West Bank village has decided, all on his own, that he's really, really ticked off at the Israelis--so ticked off, in fact, that he doesn't mind blowing himself up if he can take a few of those Jewish bastards with him. How does he go about it? Does he pick up an explosive belt--even the cheap $150 low-power sugar-and-fertilizer model--at the local Wal-Mart? Does the local yeshiva sell Orthodox-Jew disguises, to help him blend into the crowd he's headed for? What story does he tell the Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint? Or does he somehow already know the secret route through the fields that gets him past the patrols and into a big Israeli city? (And how does he avoid being noticed, wandering into town from the fields like that dressed as a lone Hasid?) How does he know where to go, and when, so that he'll find a crowd? He probably doesn't hang out much in Israeli cities these days, after all.

Of course, a smooth-functioning terrorist infrastructure makes all of this far, far easier, by putting together the people, knowledge and equipment needed to make an attack succeed with high probability. By disrupting that infrastructure, the Israelis hope they'll have massively reduced--not eliminated, of course, but massively reduced--the likelihood of our hypothetical suicidal fanatic executing a successful suicide bombing. And let's not forget the propaganda, recruitment and training/indoctrination infrastructure that helps turn an ordinary depressed teenager with dreams of glory into someone actually willing to pull the trigger and blow himself to bits. It may seem like there's an endless supply of them, but even in a brainwashed society like the occupied territories, it cannot be assumed that every kid who shows up at Arafat's door volunteering to be a shahid actually has the guts to do it. Like Al Qaida's terrorists, they all go through a careful training and winnowing process to make sure they don't waste all the time and resources being invested in them.

Of course, there's a simple empirical test of the relative correctness of Kristof's hypothesis and mine: assuming that the Israelis continue their offensive in the West Bank for the next couple of weeks, we should see, if Kristof is correct, a massive new wave of angry suicide bombers plunking down their Benjamin-and-a-half for an express ticket to Paradise, and waltzing into the midst of an Israeli urban crowd sugar-and-fertilizer-in-hand. On the other hand, if (as I predict) the rate of suicide bombings declines substantially as the Israelis continue with their arrests and searches, then we will know that Kristof has (among other errors) seriously underestimated the important contribution of well-staffed, well-heeled, well-protected, undisrupted terror organizations to succesfully bloody terrorist campaigns.

One notable data point: how many major terrorist strikes has Al Qaida pulled off lately?

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