The response to last week's shooting at Los Angeles International Airport indicates that both the government and the media have a long way to go on the homeland security front.
The FBI is still, at this writing, unwilling to use the word "terrorism" to describe the attack. Never mind that the shooter, Hesham Mohammed Hadayet, was an Egyptian immigrant who appears to have hated both America and Jews, who objected to the presence of an American flag in his apartment building, and who may have met more than once with Usama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. FBI representatives spent the days after the shooting ducking suggestions that the attack may have been terrorism.
It's true, of course: Just because an Egyptian guy who says he hates Israel and America shoots up an El Al terminal in Los Angeles, that doesn't prove that it's a hate crime, or terrorism. Even though it comes after threats against U.S. interests by Yasser Arafat's organization, and even though, frankly, only an idiot wouldn't put hate crime or terrorism at the top of the list.
But the FBI seems to be trying awfully hard to narrow the definition of "terrorism" so as to exclude Hadayet. Hadayet may or may not have links to organized groups. It's possible that we'll see the Louis Beam "leaderless resistance" approach, formerly favored by right-wing American terrorists and terrorist wannabes, adopted by Arab terrorists. But it will still be terrorism; just terrorism of a different kind. The FBI's definition, however, would seem to discount such actions.
I can't help but suspect that the real purpose of this narrowed definition is political: If the Hadayet attack wasn't "terrorism," then the fact that it happened — and in a place highly secured and regarded as a prime terrorist target — can't be called a failure of "anti-terrorist" measures.
The unwillingness of government spokesmen to apply Occam's Razor here, even with appropriate caveats, is embarrassing, and suggests that they still don't get it. Or, worse yet, that the government is succumbing to the bureaucratic penchant for euphemism and definitional games. That penchant did a lot of harm in Vietnam, where it undermined government credibility as people saw through the games, while reducing government effectiveness as bureaucrats and the military were forced to operate at a disconnect from reality.
The media haven't done much better, though. Watching news programming in the aftermath of the attack, I saw numerous talking heads suggesting that perhaps security checkpoints should be moved outside the terminal, that we needed more laws to make gun purchases difficult, that the fact that such a shooting had happened at all was proof of the need for strict new measures and so on. These suggestions were silly.
And no, that's not too harsh a word. The Los Angeles International shooting took place in the "unsecured" area of the terminal — outside the security checkpoints. But moving the checkpoints would only move the problem somewhere else: There will always be an "outside the checkpoints" unless we subject the entire nation to constant screenings and random searches, a cure worse than the disease.
This point is so obvious that, honestly, the people suggesting otherwise should have known better, or at least had the good graces to apologize once their heads cleared. But no such apologies were forthcoming.
The gun-availability point, to be fair, was made in much more muted fashion than would have been the case a few years ago. Perhaps the research of scholars like John Lott and William Landes — showing that mass shootings tend to occur in settings where victims are disarmed — has had an effect on the national debate.
Nonetheless, some commentators seemed to lose sight of the fact that an individual with a grudge against Americans and Jews decided to kill as many as he could to instead focus on the fact that he had a gun. (The Sept. 11 hijackers, on the other hand, managed to kill thousands armed only with box-cutters.)
The last point — that the mere occurrence of the LAX shooting somehow indicates a major flaw in security — is also silly. Any security system is subject to failure. It's possible to learn from such failures without assuming — as overheated news-analysis types seem always to do — that the mere existence of a failure means that wholesale changes are needed.
The clearest lesson of the Los Angeles International shooting is that diffuse threats like terrorism are best answered with diffuse defenses: lots of people, preferably armed, who are ready to respond in a hurry. Despite being heavily armed, Hedayet managed to kill only two people. That's because armed El Al security guards — and one courageous bystander who happened to be standing in line next to Hadayet — immediately tackled him and killed him. As we learned in the case of Flight 93, and again when airline passengers subdued "shoe-bomber" Richard Reid, a swift, decisive response by those on the scene is crucial.
Instead of crafting ever-narrower definitions of terrorism, or looking for easy solutions that won't work, both government officials and pundits should consider how we might mobilize the most potent anti-terror weapon of all: the citizenry.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).