By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Friday marks 14 years since the day the World Trade Center towers fell. New Jersey’s former Attorney General John Farmer was senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission. He wrote parts of the 9/11 report, and each year he marks the day with an update on the terror threat. Chief Political correspondent Michael Aron asked him where the effort to stem it stands.
Farmer: Well in some ways it’s the same old threat, in some ways it’s astonishingly a new threat. It’s new in the sense that radicalization is occurring much more rapidly than it has in the past and it’s much more diffused. It’s almost an atomized threat now so that individuals are being radicalized through social media in ways that the government can’t possibly keep track of. And what we’ve seen this summer, on the part of government officials, really for the first tine since 2001 is a sense of alarm that somehow this threat is getting away from them. So in that sense it’s reminiscent of 2001, but in another sense it’s a new threat. We’re not talking really about well organized hierarchical-type terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, so much as we are individual Holden Caulfields, James Dean, people who are young, people who are disaffected and disillusioned and who are being actively sought out on the internet and through social media by extremists of all stripes.
Aron: You wrote that we’re prepared to fight the last war yet again, as armies tend to be. You’re saying we’re well geared up to fight an institution like an Al Qaeda or an ISIS perhaps, but not to detect lone wolves.
Farmer: Lone wolves are very difficult because until there’s some kind of conduct, manifestation of their recruitment, it’s hard to tell who is one. There’s an interesting article in the Washington Post on Sunday about a case in Texas where a family’s son suddenly left and traveled and went to Turkey and was going to go to fight with ISIS. And then changed his mind and came back. And when he came back he got arrested and he’s being prosecuted for providing support for terrorism and can face 30 years in prison. That case illustrates how difficult this environment is because you want people’s parents and their loved ones to go the authorities if they’re worried about what’s happening with their young person. But if what happens as a result of that is prosecution the incentive for going to the authorities disappears. So what we’ve been working on here at Rutgers and law enforcement generally across the country is to find some other kind of approach. Countries like Sweden and Europe are trying a different tact where if someone looks troubled they intervene earlier and it’s not necessarily in a law enforcement way that they intervene.
Aron: Who intervenes?
Farmer: It could be psychologists. It could be family members. It could be social support groups. It’s going to vary from community to community, but frankly experts are still trying to find out what the right mode of intervention is. But you know we’ve always had the problem of young people being disaffected and alienated. It’s part of our literature, it’s part of our history. What’s new is the ready access to some vehicle to express that alienation in a violent way. I think what that means is that there ought to be some kind of almost civil defense training the way we had in the cold war. Where famously we would have these drills where you would get under your desk and what we would say to students was ‘put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye,’ but some form of national training for what is suspicious activity. What does it look like and how do you know what to do when you see it? I think there’s a general lack, certainly on my part, of knowledge of what do you do if you’re confronted with something like this and I think that’s the nature of the threat we’re facing and we can’t simply rely on the standard professionals to do it.