War, Feed Terrorism
I read about destroying the infrastructure of terrorism, I
am troubled by the hard fact that terrorism doesn’t need any
infrastructure to succeed. Indeed, its lack of infrastructure
is its main advantage. Historically, terrorist tactics have
been exploited by groups without state power, without the
capacity to field armies, and without permission to operate
in the open.
The same thing is true of criminals at every level, a parallel
that ought to give us pause. Our military might, money and
technology toppled the Soviet Empire, but it couldn’t keep
one evil man from climbing through a bedroom window in Petaluma,
kidnapping 12-year-old Polly Klaas, and killing her in a deserted
field shortly after he had been stopped by law enforcement
officers with the girl still alive in the trunk of his car.
It couldn’t stop one guy, or maybe two, from making a bomb
out of fertilizer that destroyed a federal building in Oklahoma
and killed several hundred people.
It seems impotent to stop some man in the suburbs of Washington,
D.C., from shooting random strangers with a high-powered rifle
even as I write this. It couldn’t prevent two high school
students from slaughtering their classmates at Columbine High
School in Colorado. The Columbine shooters then killed themselves,
so we couldn’t even bring them to justice. None of these criminals
needed their own infrastructure. They used the infrastructure
of the society they were attacking.
The same is true of the men who destroyed the World Trade
Center on Sept. 11, 2001. They didn’t have their own flight
schools; they used ours. They didn’t have their own airplanes;
they used ours. They didn’t even make those box cutters; they
bought the ones we made. And they killed themselves in the
process of committing their atrocities, so we can’t even bring
them to justice. To me, they bear frightening similarities
to the maniacs who slaughtered their schoolmates at Columbine.
Why is it then that in our national conversation about terrorism,
we use the language of war and not that of crime busting?
I think the war metaphor is based on wishful thinking. Crime
is a subtle problem and hard to get a handle on. War, on the
other hand, is something we can just declare and wage and
win—and we can do it virtually without casualty to our own
forces, as we proved in the Persian Gulf, again in the Balkans,
and most recently in Afghanistan.
Therefore, wishfully, hopefully, we talk about terrorism as
if it were just another nation-state, a monolithic entity.
We call it by a single name—Al Qaeda—thereby reducing terrorism
to an organization that can be eliminated if only its headquarters
and officers can be found. In the first few months after Sept.
11, we even spoke of a single Napoleonic mastermind, Osama
bin Laden (although it’s true we haven’t heard nearly as much
about him lately).
But what if we’re operating with the wrong model? What if
terrorism is more like crime? The model we’re using shapes
our assumptions, and our specific responses follow as the
night follows day.
Take the “war on drugs,” for example. Merely calling it “a
war” suggests the sorts of apparatus needed to solve the problem:
infrared night goggles, heat seeking missiles, camouflage
outfits, jungle air drops and the like. Has the military approach
to the drug problem worked? I’d say the jury is still out.
Repeating the same error with terrorism could be more costly.
Again: Calling it a war locks us into assumptions about what
steps to take. Real war consists of one state going head-to-head
with another. Each government tries to destroy the capacity
of the other to keep functioning. Whoever loses this capacity
first is forced to say, “I give up.”
Our proposals for stamping out terrorism come to us without
scrutiny from this familiar model. That’s why the buzz phrases
are “defeating terrorist states” and “destroying the infrastructure
of terrorism.” In practice, these phrases turn out to simply
mean “defeating states” and “destroying infrastructure.” The
word “terrorism” is just slapped on them to disguise the fact
that these are the same old responses to a brand new problem.
After all, suppose we do conquer Iraq and then Iran and then
North Korea, and then Sudan and Libya and Syria, and whatever
other countries are designated as “terrorist states.” Will
terrorism end? That’s the question.
The answer is surely no. Terrorism is born of grudge and grievance.
Some say the grudges are invalid and the grievances imagined.
Those people should get over it, they say. They might be right.
And if wishes were horses, such opinions would be relevant.
But in the real world, we have to deal with the fact that
terrorism does have sources. And we have to confront the fact
that terrorism is nourished by dislocation, chaos, impotence
Reducing functioning societies to anarchy by destroying their
infrastructure and killing great numbers of their citizens
is likely to increase whatever legacy of grudge and grievance
is already in place. It is also likely to increase the number
of dislocated individuals living in furious impotence and
stewing in secrecy. This may be a price worth paying if the
original threat is a foreign government that is out to conquer
our country. Go to war with Iraq? Certainly, if the Iraqi
government and its ruler Saddam Hussein think they have a
shot at conquering the United States and intend to try.
But if terrorism is the problem to be solved, it’s a whole
different matter. In that case, making war on Iraq and other
nation-states may well be the worst possible policy, because
it is only likely to make the problem worse.