One doesn’t want to lean too heavily on human tragedies to make political points, but since a lot of our politics rightly concerns itself with how to minimize the occurrence of tragic events, it is necessary to try to see what can be learned. And to that end, it seems worth taking note of the fact that the weekend’s bombing and massacre in Norway should remind us once again that “safe havens” in Pakistan and Afghanistan are neither necessary nor sufficient to undertake mass casualty attacks in the west. Indeed, the one thing you can say for sure about a wood-be killer located in Afghanistan is that he’s not in a western country and thus has no ability to mount a major attack in the west. Any “safe haven” abroad is, by definition, too far away to open fire on a summer camp.
This also shows us — as did the plotting of the 9/11 attacks themselves by a cell in Hamburg — that generalized establishment of good governance is not sufficient to foil terrorist attacks. Germany and Norway are among the best-governed countries on earth. We would be lucky if the United States were to achieve the level of orderliness efficient administration that they have. It’s simply not going to happen for Pakistan or Afghanistan in this lifetime. But at the same time, conventional law enforcement does have a pretty good track record of busting up plots. There’s no perfect security, but these things are hard to get away with. But precisely the problem we don’t have is the need to establish rough military control over large swathes of far-away foreign countries. This is both extremely difficult to pull off and largely unrelated to domestic security goals.