Doug Bedell — April 17, 2007, 2:15 pm

Terrorism Ebbing or Flowing?

Is terrorism ebbing or flowing in the world or any given country? That’s a critical question for the forseeable future, and one the Congressional Research Service (CRS) addresses in a report to its client members of Congress and congressional committees.

Not surprisingly, the CRS appraisal, reported and available for downloading in the Secrecy News blog of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy, provides a cautious answer.

Call it a “half full/half empty” analogy: “Western policymakers often tend to define success by the absence of attacks. When the shooting or bombing stops, for example, that is viewed as success. Yet terrorists sometimes define success in terms of making governments expend limited resources trying to defend an enormous number of potential targets.”

“Assessing progress by focusing on those factors that can easily be measured may mislead policymakers.”

Yet lawmakers and government agencies, as well as private companies and institutions, have to allocate funds and make other terrorism-related decisions in the face of such ambivalent counsel, understandable as it is.

Seeking to firm up the outlook a bit, CRS concludes by stating that, “Although terrorism’s complex webs of characteristics — along with the inherent secrecy and compartmentalization of both terrorist organizations and government responses — limit available data, the formulation of practical, useful measurement criteria appears both tractable and ready to be addressed.”

The dictionary’s definition of “tractable” is “easily managed or controlled.” We wish CRS well in making good on its assurance. Yet prudence is surely advisable while reliable measures for taking terrorism’s pulse are developed.

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