Getting Serious About Terrorism

Ever since 9/11, I’ve had the feeling that the U.S.’s domestic counter-terrorism efforts, including the Patriot Act, various airport security measures, and the like, have not been especially serious.  They are a combination of giving law enforcement a wish list much of which is only tangentially related to terrorism (the Patriot Act), half-measures that give only an illusion of security (what’s the point of banning liquids in carry on luggage when a terrorist could tape thin plastic containers of liquid to his body undetected, given our unwillingness to use full body scanners?) and things that are just silly (why would a terrorist bother targeting, say, the Department of Labor?  and if he did, would requiring him to show a photo i.d. really stop him?)

Meanwhile, the U.S. could take some obvious counter-terror measures that don’t even seem to have been seriously considered.  Number one on my list would be cutting off immigration from countries where jihadist ideology is popular.  Several recent arrests involving home-grown domestic terrorists involve individuals whose families immigrated to the U.S. from countries like (IIRC) Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.  This should not be a big surprise.  Immigrant youths and young adults often feel dislocated and alienated from their new society, and it’s not terribly surprising that some fraction of them would be attracted to extremist ideologies popular in their homelands, and readily accessible via the Internet.

Of course, most the vast majority of immigrants from these countries are perfectly law-abiding and will make fine citizens.  But the question is, why take the risk regarding the small fraction that will turn out to be murderous terrorists?  What’s the advantage to the U.S. of, say, taking in another ten thousand Somalians instead of, say, Salvadoreans, or Koreans, or Irish, or members of other nationalities that are far less likely to be implicated in anti-American terrorism?  Assuming a finite level of overall immigration, it’s just common sense to prefer immigrants from more friendly societies.

What about, you may ask, constitutional considerations?  Can the U.S. lawfully prefer certain nationalities over others?  It sure can.  The Supreme Court has consistently held that the federal government has essentially plenary power over immigration.

The simplest way to prevent domestic terrorists is to prevent them from entering the U.S. to begin with.  And such measures require no infringements on the rights of American citizens, or even petty inconveniences like going through metal detectors at the Smithsonian(!)

The only reason I can see for NOT implementing draconian restrictions on immigration from countries that disproportionately produce anti-American terrorists is political correctness, in this case the pretense that a young immigrant from Chile is just as likely to try to blow up an Amtrak train as a young immigrant from Yemen.  It’s time to get past such nonsense.

UPDATE: Various commenters below argue against my proposal, some more seriously than others.  Of course, if I had more confidence in both our foreign and domestic security services, and in the latter’s ability to effectively combat terrorism without bowing too much to domestic political considerations on the one hand, or ultimately restricting the rights of innocent Americans (or, I fear, both!), I’d be less inclined to worry about who is or is not entering the country.

But the broader point is, that even if it turns out I’m wrong, isn’t it strange that we haven’t had this debate, and that, as far as I can tell, no serious consideration has been given to significantly modifying immigration policy in light of the events of the past decade?

Besides political correctness and “fairness” concerns raised by Paul Horwitz below, there’s the self-congratulatory and ultimately fallacious idea that the blandishments of American life are so great that we don’t have to worry much about “home grown” terrorism on the other.

And from another commenter:

I think David’s larger point has been overlooked in the frenzy to debate the virtues of including this or that demographic grouping: we have not, as a nation, thought seriously about ways to keep potential terrorists from entering our country, let alone implement them.