FOUR YEARS after suicide bombers flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field — creating a permanent association between the date of Sept. 11 and mass murder — al-Qaida-inspired holy warriors continue to carry out suicide attacks around the world. They live to die, embracing death with religious fervor to inflict maximum casualties and pave their own way to paradise.
Since 9/11, suicide terrorists from Bali to Baghdad to Britain have blown up themselves and those unlucky enough to be nearby in restaurants, on city streets, on subways and trains, in hospitals, in public buildings, in schools, at police checkpoints and other targets. The bombers make no distinctions among victims and accept no constraints. Men, women, children, Muslims and non-Muslims have all been sent to terrible deaths in the split-second of an explosion.
The display of terminal fanaticism by these holy warriors is impressive in a horrible way and incomprehensible to most of us. Like a force of nature, they seem to move forward with lethal power for no apparent reason, the way Hurricane Katrina moved across the Gulf Coast, leaving death and destruction in their wake.
America's vulnerability to a catastrophic disaster — spotlighted by Katrina — does not make a massive attack by terrorists any more likely because destroying an American city has long been a terrorist goal. Katrina's main effect on terrorists was to bring joy in the belief that a just God has launched his own deadly attack on evil America. For us, the dismaying stream of images from New Orleans and other stricken communities will likely increase our fear and uncertainty about our vulnerability to future terrorist attacks.
As technology spreads, the power to kill, destroy, disrupt and alarm is descending into the hands of gangs and organizations whose grievances it will not always be possible to satisfy. How we deal with that without destroying democracy or creating neo-medieval security states is one of the major challenges we face.
We find ourselves in a struggle where values are at stake. Al-Qaida's international terrorist enterprise must be destroyed. Driven by a hateful and dangerous ideology, it threatens the world with escalating acts of violence. Its destruction requires a long and unrelenting campaign, including military force.
Introducing the concept of war has enabled America to mobilize resources and seize the initiative, but this does not mean military force alone will enable us to succeed. It is necessary not only to dismantle al-Qaida's global terrorist enterprise but also to destroy the appeal of its ideology. Otherwise, even as we succeed, our terrorist foes will multiply.
At the same time, American values must be preserved. As a superpower, the United States has the capacity to destroy the planet, but our response must be as precise as our modern arsenal allows. We must respect basic human rights, preserve our Constitution, live up to our treaty obligations and observe the rules of war and law.
Every nation that has confronted a serious terrorist threat has been compelled to change the rules to facilitate the collection of intelligence, broaden police powers and change judicial procedures. But there still must be rules, openly debated, properly legislated, strictly adhered to. That is democracy's best defense.
Preservation of our values of democracy and justice is both principled and pragmatic. Only by adhering to them can we maintain domestic support for a long and difficult campaign, mobilize international support and avoid handing our extremist foes recruiting opportunities from our mistakes. Regrettably, we have not always lived up to these values.
The struggle is asymmetrical. America has superior firepower. While the development of precision weapons enables us to be increasingly discriminate in its application, it doesn't always work in close-in urban warfare such as we face in Iraq, where the objective is achieving military objectives with minimum friendly and collateral casualties.
Claiming spiritual superiority, our terrorist foes are eager to die. We should expect no respect for the lives of others by those who do not value their own lives.
Four years after 9/11, we cannot let suicide bombers who embrace the effluent of ideologies that exult in death distort our thinking. Nor should we try to match their self-proclaimed martyrdom. Their readiness to die is no measure of virtue, only a narcissistic and self-destructive assertion of personal power and burning hatred for all who do not embrace their worldview.
Brian Michael Jenkins is a terrorism expert and senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Baltimore Sun on September 11, 2005.