note: The opinions are those of the author and not of any agency
of the U.S. government.
was one thing you could count on from terrorists back in the 1970s:
with every explosion or assassination, there was a demand, a manifesto,
a claim of responsibility, that left little doubt about what the
violence was meant to accomplish. Some of these demands were utopian;
others were so parochial that they were almost incomprehensible
outside of their immediate circumstances. But at the least, there
was a clarity of purpose to terrorist acts that reminded victims
and sympathizers alike that these were not merely random lightning
strikes of violence, but strategies aimed at using armed force to
achieve a specific purpose.
in the 21st century, by comparison, are a confused lot. Osama bin
Laden's "who, me?" refrain is not only silly on its face
and this constant attempt to evade responsibility, by the
way, is what makes his attacks "cowardly," not the bold
nature of their execution but it also suggests that the terrorists
themselves may not have a clear idea of what they want. As disturbing
as it is, we have to contend with the possibility that we are entering
an era where terrorism is detached from any clear strategic goals.
incoherence of the attacks launched since the early 1990s (the initial
attempt to destroy the Twin Towers in 1993 was followed by car bombs
in Africa, exactly the reverse of a pattern of escalation) suggest
that the search for "reasons" and "understanding"
are pointless exercises. Osama bin Laden himself has said that what
he wants is to kill Americans and plunder their wealth, and in that
he's succeeded. But if the terrorists have any long-range goals
beyond immediate gratification from the slaughter of U.S. citizens,
then either they do not understand the basics of terrorism, or they've
abandoned any pretense of strategy in favor of self-indulgent, self-defeating
addiction to violence.
Terrorism, after all, is a strategy used by the weak against the
strong. The whole point is to exhaust the enemy without wounding
him so badly that he will ultimately bring the advantages of his
size and power into the fray. Moreover, terrorism should isolate
the opponent, divorce him from the comfort of his friends and allies,
and generate sympathy for the cause in whose name he has been struck.
In general, the object is to convince the target that life would
be more placid if only he would grant the one thing, or few things,
that are being demanded of him. This is why Irish terrorists, sensibly,
will not do the British government the inadvertent favor of blowing
up airliners in London that might accidentally be loaded with otherwise
sympathetic Irish Americans.
the attacks in New York. (The attack on the Pentagon, a military
target, makes a great deal of sense, and had it occurred by itself
I might be writing of the audacity and strategic brilliance of the
terrorists rather than their obtuseness.) The attackers choose to
visibly alter forever the Manhattan skyline and therefore keep alive
a burning desire for revenge in the United States; worse, the sheer
ferocity of the attack is confirmation that there will be no peace
under any circumstances. Moreover, their obsession with the symbolism
of the towers blinded them to the fact that it was the one target
that would guarantee that the maximum number of foreigners, including
many from states with no interest in this fight, would be hurt and
killed. The resulting outrage from the international community and
consequent outpouring of support for the U.S. was, or should have
been, predictable, and the terrorists now face an emerging coalition
far larger than the one they attacked.
It's been suggested
that this is exactly what bin Laden wants, a kind of gotterdammerung
between the West and the Islamic world. This realignment of warring
coalitions will then result in
well, what? The destruction
of the West? The rallying of the Islamic faithful? A reckoning in
which all Arab states have to choose sides in a global war with
the United States? All of these grandiose hopes border on hallucinatory,
and if this is what bin Laden had in mind, then years of education
and travel have taught him nothing about the West, his fellow Arabs,
or how the international system actually works.
If there is
no real endgame foreseen in bin Laden's strategy, then there is
no real motivation here other than hate. And Islamic extremists
do hate the West, for the same reason the dinosaurs hated tar pits:
They know that we are the instrument of their extinction. As long
as we remain a secular, tolerant, modern, and democratic culture,
they will feel us to be a constant threat to their theocratic, intolerant,
retrograde, and dictatorial aims. They know, whether they will admit
it to themselves or not, that our way of life is a threat to theirs
because theirs cannot compete with it. (The idea that some of the
hijackers, those putative soldiers of jihad, spent their last night
on earth getting tanked on vodka and paying for lap dances in some
dive in Florida is probably enough to make the most stiff-necked
mullah wince; imagine the effects of the greater seductions of education,
prosperity, and freedom.) They hate us, in short, solely because
The issue here
is not one of religion but of liberty, and this is not only what
infuriates the terrorists most but also what prevents them from
attaching coherent demands to their actions. Whatever the material
attractions of life in the West, hundreds of millions of free human
beings will choose to be devout believers in Islam no matter where
they live. Far fewer, however, will choose to be under the impoverishing
boot of men like bin Laden and live lives of misery and oppression
in the name of Islam, and he and his supporters almost certainly
know it. What demand then logically follows from this? To be less
"modern?" The Western idea that people can flourish and
worship as they please without the hand of the government driving
them to their knees on their prayer mats is one that maddens fundamentalist
totalitarians like bin Laden and the Taliban to the point, literally,
It is therefore worth knowing that such terrorists do not have "demands,"
as we once understood them, and that the "root causes"
of their actions cannot be addressed, as so many of the usual suspects
in Europe and Canada (and sadly, even in some latte-drenched corners
of the United States) would have us do. At the least, it relieves
us of any obligation even to feint at negotiations with them, or
to pressure other nations, including Israel, to do so as well.
But more important,
it leads to the inescapable conclusion that we have been left with
no other option but retaliation, then war, and eventually, unconditional
surrender. Osama bin Laden must be delivered to Western hands and
regimes like the Taliban must be destroyed not because Westerners
are cruel or vindictive people, but because we have been served
notice, in the clearest terms, that our enemies demand nothing less
than our extinction.
have asked for nothing, and we can therefore offer them nothing.
Thus has bin Laden and his sort created a situation of unlimited
war that can only end with the complete capitulation of one side
or the other. One day, when this war is over, the losers will think
back to September 11, 2001, and perhaps realize that they would
have been better off to wear down the Americans rather than to enrage
them. At the least, they might consider that at some point they
should have just tried to make a demand even one and
indulged the world in the fantasy that their terror was aimed at
a goal that could have been satisfied.