Keep the following in mind the next time you hear someone say “cyber war”:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
Those words were written a century ago by H.L. Mencken, one of the greatest minds this nation has ever produced. While the quote can be applied to all aspects of politics, let’s just focus on cyber war for now.
Since 1898, when the U.S. decided to ignore George Washington’s advice on foreign affairs and became an imperial power, our leaders have made a lot of money talking up foreign menaces. The larger the menace, the bigger the budget needed to fight it. In many ways those threats have come full circle: We started with The Anarchists and have wound up at Terror.
At the turn of the 20th century the U.S. government constantly warned Americans about anarchists--who came here from foreign places to overthrow the government and start labor unions. They evolved into The Reds just in time for Woodrow Wilson to trash the Bill of Rights. (You didn’t think it started with Bush and Obama did you?) Shortly thereafter we got the FBI, and the national security industry was up and running. The Reds turned into Nazis and whatever racist epithets we wanted to call the Japanese before they just became Communists again. (And lest anyone think I am soft on the Commies, Mao and Stalin were the two greatest mass-murders in human history. By body count Adolf is a distant, but horrible, third.)
After the Communists self-destructed there was a threat vacuum, and for a while some of our leaders turned to Monica Lewinsky to fill it. Then Osama bin Laden perpetrated the murder of 3,000 Americans, and we declared war on a concept: “Terror.” This isn’t to say that Osama and his slimy ilk aren’t a threat, but they aren’t a threat that can destroy the United States. Terror is the perfect threat because it really can’t be defeated, and we'll always need more and more resources to fight it.
Which brings us, finally, to the issue of cyber war. Last week Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Fear), chair of House subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Management, started throwing “digital bombs.”
We have been fortunate that up until this point, cyber attacks in our country have not caused a cataclysmic event that could bring physical harm to Americans. But that is not for a lack of effort on the part of those who mean to destroy our way of life. Every day nations and “hacktivist” groups penetrate our public and private computer networks. The degradation of our national security and intellectual property from cyber theft threatens to weaken us where we have been historically strong: in our ingenuity and creativity.
Whenever a politician says “our way of life,” check to make sure you still have your wallet.
McCaul is just one of many voices. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "A cyber attack could stop our society in its tracks."
Their answer to the problem is simple*: The only way to make sure our way of life is secure? More money. The United States already devotes half of its budget to security. Right now all we have to show for it is two failed wars, 16 different intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security. Do you feel any more secure?
All of this is not to say that we don’t have significant security problems with our critical IT infrastructure. We do. But all of this fear mongering won’t fix that. It will just mean more of our liberty and our money gets taken from us while little is done to fix what is truly wrong.
*“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” – Mencken, again. If you haven’t read Mencken, I suggest you start with The Vintage Mencken. There is also the Library of America’s Prejudices: The Complete Series. Or stop by if you’re in my neighborhood and you can borrow a few of his books from me. Another quote: "Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods."