"Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts." So spoke President Bush in his address to the nation soon after the catastrophic events of September 11.
I agree with the president's sentiments but disagree with two specifics in this statement. First, there was nothing cowardly about the attacks, which were deeds of incredible — albeit perverted — bravery. Second, to "hunt down and punish" the perpetrators is deeply to misunderstand the problem. It implies that we view the plane crashes as criminal deeds rather than what they truly are — acts of war. They are part of a campaign of terrorism that began in a sustained way with the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983, a campaign that has never since relented. Occurring with almost predictable regularity a few times a year, assaults on Americans have included explosions on airliners, at commercial buildings, and at a variety of U.S. governmental installations. Before last week, the total death toll was about 600 American lives.
To me, this sustained record of violence looks awfully much like war, but Washington in its wisdom has insisted otherwise. Official policy has viewed the attacks as a sequence of discrete criminal incidents. Seeing terrorism primarily as a problem of law enforcement is a mistake, because it means:
- Focusing on the arrest and trial of the dispensable characters who actually carry out violent acts, leaving the funders, planners, organizers, and commanders of terrorism to continue their work unscathed, prepared to carry out more attacks.
- Relying primarily on such defensive measures as metal detectors, security guards, bunkers, police arrests, and prosecutorial eloquence — rather than on such offensive tools as soldiers, aircraft, and ships.
- Misunderstanding the terrorist's motivations as criminal, whereas they are usually based on extremist ideologies.
- Missing the fact that terrorist groups (and the states that support them) have declared war on the United States (sometimes publicly).
- Requiring that the U.S. government have unrealistically high levels of proof before deploying military force. If it lacks evidence that can stand up in a U.S. court of justice, as is usually the case, no action is taken. The legalistic mindset thus ensures that, in the vast majority of cases, the U.S. government does not respond, and killers of Americans pay little or no price.
The time has come for a paradigm shift, toward viewing terrorism as a form of warfare. Such a change will have many implications. It means targeting not just those foot soldiers who actually carry out the violence but the organizations and governments that stand behind them. It means relying on the armed forces, not policemen, to protect Americans. It means defense overseas rather than in American courtrooms. It means that organizations and governments that sponsor terrorism — not just the foot soldiers who carry it out — will pay the price.
It means dispensing with the unrealistically high expectations of proof so that when reasonable evidence points to a regime's or an organization's having harmed Americans, U.S. military force can be deployed. It means that, as in conventional war, Washington need not know the names and specific actions of enemy soldiers before fighting them.
It means retaliating every single time terrorism harms an American. There is no need to know the precise identity of a perpetrator; in war, there are times when one strikes first and asks questions later. When an attack takes place, it could be reason to target any of those known to harbor terrorists. If the perpetrator is not precisely known, then punish those who are known to harbor terrorists. Go after the governments and organizations that support terrorism.
It means using force so that the punishment is disproportionately greater than the attack. The U.S. has a military force far more powerful than any other in the world: Why spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year on it and not deploy it to defend Americans?
I give fair warning: The military approach demands more from Americans than does the legal one. It requires a readiness to spend money and to lose lives. Force works only if it is part of a sustained policy, not a one-time event. Throwing a few bombs (as was done against the Libyan regime in 1986, and against sites in Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998) does not amount to a serious policy. Going the military route requires a long-term commitment that will demand much from Americans over many years.
But it will be worth it, for the safety of Americans depends ultimately not on defense but on offense; on victories not in the courtroom but on the battlefield. The U.S. government needs to establish a newly fearsome reputation, so that anyone who harms Americans knows that retribution will be certain and nasty. Nothing can replace the destruction of any organization or government that harms so much as a single American citizen.
To those who say this approach would start a cycle of violence, the answer is obvious: That cycle already exists, as Americans are constantly murdered in acts of terrorism. Further, by baring their teeth, Americans are far more likely to intimidate their enemies than to instigate further violence. Retaliation will reduce violence, not further increase it, providing Americans with a safety they presently do not enjoy.
Oct. 1, 2001 update: This analysis builds on an argument I have been making for years. Specifically, see a 1998 analysis, "[Terrorism:] The New Enemy."