We've heard the phrase war on terror so often we usually simply accept it without question. But it doesn't really make sense; terror is just a tactic for prosecuting a conflict, not the conflict's strategic underpinning. Terrorism is a means to an end, not the end itself. As Zbigniew Brzezinski remarked, it would be equally meaningful to proclaim a war on blitzkrieg.
It's a good thing the war on shooting from behind trees was never won. If the revolutionaries had been restricted to tactics approved by the British, they would have lost the fight and the U.S.A. wouldn't exist.
A good definition of terrorism is any premeditated, unlawful act dangerous to human life or public welfare that is intended to intimidate or coerce civilian populations or governments. Using that definition, many organizations (including the U.S. government) have resorted to the tactic occasionally.
Key to reducing terrorism is understanding what motivates terrorists. Jessica Stern, author of the book Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill, in an interview said
One thing they have in common is a frustration with establishing a clear identity.
What religious extremist groups offer
-- and that can even include groups that don't get involved in terrorism--
is a very clear identity.
It's very clear who we are, and it's very clear who the outsiders are,
and what makes us different from them.
And one of the primary tasks of a religious terrorist leader
is to capitalize on some feeling of humiliation, often related to identity,
that they find in potential members.
It could be a personal feeling of humiliation,
or it could be civilizational, national.
They make their followers feel that the way to forge a new identity
is by getting involved with this violent group.
I think it is because there are a large number of
humiliated young men in the Islamic world.
Terrorist leaders capitalize on this humiliation -- they try to strengthen it, and urge their followers to take action against the entity purportedly responsible for humiliting them.
[Humiliation's] what they talk about, and not just in conversations with me. In fact, on the Web, you can look at what Ayman al Zawahiri says about humiliation in his writings.
And in her article How America Created a Terrorist Haven she said
While there is no single root cause of terrorism, my interviews with terrorists over the past five years suggest that alienation, perceived humiliation and lack of political and economic opportunities make young men susceptible to extremism. It can evolve easily into violence when government institutions are weak and there is money available to pay for a holy war.
Clearly the old concept of "bring to justice" doesn't make much sense with people who are already prepared to die. What punishment could have any effect on someone that's already prepared to blow themselves up or die flying a plane into a building? Deterring terrorists requires us to use a different frame of thinking.
Our goal should be not to eliminate terrorism but rather to bring more security to the U.S.A. One detailed analysis of goals and methods is presented in the paper A Secure America in a Secure World authored by John Gershman and others under the auspices of the FPIF Task Force on Terrorism.
We often hear the reasoning that if we're not for fighting then we must be for cringing. But in fact there are many other options besides those two, and not supporting one of them doesn't imply supporting the other. Even when faced with a bully on a school playground, we had lots more options than just put up our fists or run away. We could rally our gang to support us. We could compete some other way, such as doing pushups. We could plead with a teacher. We could slyly move to a relatively safe area of the playground. We could stall until the recess bell rang.
Instead of resolving the problem, I fear that a walking tall response to terrorism creates even more terrorism. But my opposition to our military strategy doesn't at all mean I want to just kneel down with head bowed, and I resent being put in that box. Reservations about responding militarily don't necessarily mean favoring appeasement.
I'm repeatedly told that George W. Bush was a strong leader against terrorism. But the record suggests the opposite. The reorganization of the government to create the Department of Homeland Security was initially rebuffed, then finally accepted only more than a year after the twin towers fell. A congressional investigation was initially completely rejected, then interviews and document access by the investigators were thwarted throughout.
The Final Report of the 9/11 Commission recommended changes in areas where the president had never done anything, even though almost three years had passed. We should have been able to compare the commission's recommendations with what had already actually happened, rather than having to compare them with competing plans. The dearth of needed technology within the FBI, rogue elements of the intelligence community within the Pentagon, and fragmentation of the intelligence community into multiple turf wars have all been well known for a long time. Yet George W. Bush did nothing about these problems, and even belatedly accepted only a much watered down version of the 9/11 Commision's recommendations in regard to an intelligence czar.
A thorough and reasonable Pentagon strategy against extremist violence wasn't promulgated until March 2005. That was three and a half years after the 9/11 attack. This strategy seems to be a tacit admission that the previous Global War On Terrorism (GWOT) strategy hasn't worked.
Obvious items critically important to our safety include loose nukes, nuclear power plants, our food supply, ocean port security, and firemen and policemen talking to each other on the same radio frequency. Let's focus more on these and less on al Qaeda. Let's have leaders that know how to choose well the first time rather than learning on the job. And let's squarely face up to paying the costs of managing the political mess made by previous poor decisions for a whole generation.
Combating extremist violence is just one aspect of our foreign policy.
Effectively countering terrorism requires carefully targeting only the small group of perpetrators. Addressing entire societies is at best ineffective and probably downright counterproductive (as well as being very expensive). Alienating ordinary citizens just makes more terrorists. Wiping out Osama bin Laden the wrong way may produce 100 more bin Ladens. A common opinion it that fighting terrorism is the work of police and intelligence operatives, not of the military. The very phrase war on terror illustrates the problems of our current policy: emphasis on military solutions, no end in sight (not even after a few years), and an ever-present reason to trample civil rights and keep gobs of secrets.
Jason Burke in a Think Again feature about al Qaeda in the May/June 2004 issue of Foreign Policy magazine makes the same point in simple True/False format:
He expands on his statement by saying: Bin Laden is a propagandist, directing his efforts at attracting those Muslims who have hitherto shunned his extremist message. He knows that only through mass participation in his project will he have any chance of success. His worldview is receiving immeasurably more support around the globe than it was two years ago, let alone 15 years ago when he began serious campaigning. The objective of Western countries is to eliminate the threat of terror, or at least to manage it in a way that does not seriously impinge on the daily lives of its citizens. Bin Laden's aim is to radicalize and mobilize. He is closer to achieving his goals than the West is to deterring him.
Interestingly, the very next day after President Obama mentioned closing the Guantanamo prison, a story about released prisoners returning to terrorism was widely distributed through news channels. The source of that news story? al Qaeda!
Although it's easier to think of a single enemy--al Qaeda-- as an all-powerful organization that's the source of all our woes, the reality we face is a more complex multi-headed hydra. Intelligence suggests al Qaeda has morphed significantly since 9/11 and is now most definitely a franchise organization, whether or not it was before. Why do so many small groups want to sign up under al Qaeda's umbrella? How do we neutralize them all? Can we root out so many without causing so much collateral damage we actually make our situation worse?
Jason Burke in the same Think Again feature about al Qaeda in the May/June 2004 issue of Foreign Policy magazine expands on the inappropriateness of that name, saying that the organization was dubbed al Qaeda by the FBI partly as an attempt to apply conventional antiterrorism laws to a new kind of organization, and that because the term is so poorly defined the Israeli intelligence services now refer instead to jihadi international. He says what makes more sense is to refer to the al Qaeda worldview or al Qaedaism.
I was particularly intrigued by the book The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam's War Against America by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. Much of the book recounts what went on in our government relative to terrorist threats both before and after 9/11, and is particularly good at cementing a cohesive story out of what are all too often disparate factoids. One of their suggestions is that the current intellectual chaos in the Islamic world parallels disruptions in the Christian world provoked by the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Although not stated explicitly, there's a hint that a good way to understand Osama bin Laden is to study Oliver Cromwell.
Most interestingly, the authors comment that --for reasons they don't understand-- the first part of their title The Age of Sacred Terror is applicable to many religious traditions, not just Islam. To convince the reader of the wide applicability of their statement and that they're not just sinking to unsubstantiated generalities, they describe three specific examples of recent apocalyptic thinking and violence in other religious traditions: the events leading up to the murder of Yitzak Rabin in Israel, the Christian Identity movement in this country and its connections to Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the release of neurotoxic sarin gas in a subway by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult in Japan. Each of these events is presented in more detail than the conventional wisdom, including especially discussion of motivations and worldview. I found the picture they sketched truly chilling. (My thought: it's hard to sanction things like Christian militias or military training for the end times while pinning all the blame for religious violence on Islam.)
The authors also comment it's both easy and important to separate the type of terror in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the type of terror al Qaeda is directing at the U.S. One kind is tactical, the other strategic. Palestinian terror --directed toward securing either recovery of land or some kind of negotiating advantage-- may very well change with Yasser Arafat gone from the scene and Hamas ascendent, but nothing will sway al Qaeda from its goal of the total existential destruction of the U.S.
The U.S. reaction to the 9/11 attacks should have been to negate the tiny groups of fanatics that espouse violence (perhaps as a morally cleansing apocalypse), with very little or no damage to societies and nearby civilians. Instead we reacted like a hurt child, with the damage as much to our pride as to our citizens. We've moved to show the whole world who's really boss. You can think of this as the "Superpower Syndrome" (the title of an article in the December 22, 2003 issue of The Nation magazine).
A pithy phrase that describes what I think of the situation is "big stick diplomacy". We should remember that the other part of that dictum is "walk softly". Another way of expressing the same thing is that our country should supply leadership--not force to the world.