What would it take to keep the West safe from terrorism?
The news out of Brussels is not encouraging. In the wake of a horrific pair of terrorist attacks that killed at least 35 people last week, police are strained to the breaking point. They arrested the wrong guy. They begged planners to delay the city's big anti-fear rally. And they're now aware that Islamic State operatives have worked for years on building terror networks in Europe out of Francophone recruits from northern Africa and the EU itself.
It's a problem the U.S. has slept on as well. As former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Michael Flynn told The New York Times: "This didn't all of a sudden pop up in the last six months. They have been contemplating external attacks ever since the group moved into Syria in 2012." On both sides of the Atlantic, the West simply missed the signals, refusing to consider the possibility that ISIS was a more formidable and dedicated foe than officials hoped.
And now, as reality sets in, the question is whether the West can actually keep itself safe from terrorism.
What would it take to keep us safe? Even in Europe, where civil liberties are not what they are in America, the level of extremist infiltration is so deep that tightening border security and increasing surveillance will not move the needle to where it needs to be. Sweeping legal changes and intelligence sharing can only do so much. Nobody will tolerate the imposition of martial law. Americans do not want a national police force; Europeans don't want a continental one. But there are too many people spread across too much territory to effectively monitor them all, even without privacy standards. The lesson from cybersecurity is that even a state-of-the art system can't prevent all attacks.
Westerners are poised to confront some hard choices — ones that go beyond just chipping away at the very freedoms their security is supposed to protect. Nonetheless, visions of increasing authoritarianism, aside from being spooky and depressing, are just not very persuasive. Generation upon generation of bungling bureaucracies and incompetent elites offer very little hope that more centralized policing and more pervasive monitoring will do the trick. It is as if the West does not even have the option of throwing itself at the feet of an all-powerful master to keep us safe.
So it may be that Westerners will not waste much time on the dystopian future of our worst imaginings. Perhaps that old fear is obsolete now too. Instead, achieving a true measure of safety from terrorism may send public opinion back to the past, when private organizations shared in what later became nation-states' monopolies on the exercise of domestic power.
Remember the Pinkerton detective agency? More than 100 years ago, they became an unparalleled private force in the U.S., operating as everything from strike breakers to security guards to military contractors. It's easy to see how an organization like that can become more of a problem than a solution. But it's also easy to imagine how, today, rather than fighting domestic enemies, new private groups could battle foreign infiltrators and their homegrown associates with a degree of efficacy that nation-states and police forces struggle with.
Of course, such an approach would rightfully make a lot of Westerners fear that their civilization is going backwards, to a more violent, de-centered, and unequal time. Europeans especially would hark back to the bad old days of mercenary armies traipsing across the continent.
But Western governments know they are up against the wall and need help fast. Would it really be so surprising if anti-terror officials started thinking seriously about formally authorizing domestic operations by independent forces? They might not have any other choice.