This commentary appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on September 16, 2001.
Previous terrorist attacks on the United States were tragedies, but they were
remote and somehow seemed tolerable -- the price America paid for being a superpower
in a hostile, violent world. We denounced terrorism, we threatened, we arrested
some terrorists, we imposed sanctions on state sponsors. And on a few occasions,
we responded with a single calibrated military attack. Then life returned to
normal. We slept.
The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center might have changed our perceptions,
but we were lucky; only six persons died in a bombing intended to kill thousands.
Authorities discovered and thwarted the next terrorist plot to blow up targets
in New York. Many more died in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma
City, but that was carried out by one of our own. The 1996 terrorist plot to
blow up 12 U.S. airliners in the Pacific failed. One of those planning to carry
out suicide bombings on New York's subways in 1997 got cold feet and police
moved in -- we were again lucky.
And lucky again in late 1999 when an alert customs agent became suspicious
and discovered a car loaded with explosives. Americans celebrated the millennium
in noisy peace. But as one terrorist noted years ago, "The authorities have
to be lucky every time. We need to get lucky only one time." Worried analysts
noted that terrorism had changed. The replacement of ideology with religious
fanaticism as the driving force behind terrorism eroded the self-imposed constraints
that had limited terrorist violence in the past. God's self-appointed avengers
killed without concerns about alienating constituents. Large-scale indiscriminate
violence had become the reality. The new terrorist adversaries viewed America
as their battleground.
In June 2000, the National Commission on Terrorism warned that "today's
terrorists seek to inflict mass casualties, and they are attempting to do so
both overseas and on American soil." The U.S. Commission on National Security
in the 21st Century agreed, concluding that "attacks against American citizens
on American soil, possibly causing heavy casualties are likely over the next
quarter century." We didn't have to wait long. On Sept. 11, our luck ran
Now, we are going to war -- "war" in bold print, in italics, underlined
to distinguish it from our previous wars on terrorism. This time, Congress has
given the president a formal mandate. This time it is different.
But how do we wage war against elusive terrorist foes -- networks of fanatics
who offer few lucrative targets for conventional military attack? Will it require
us to use military force as implacably as we did during World War II? What sacrifices
will it demand? How long will it last? Will we persevere in a protracted contest
with no light at the end of the tunnel? Will it change our national character?
I tend to be skeptical of the patriotic platitudes of podium-pounding politicians.
And as a Vietnam veteran, I remain skeptical of fickle public opinion. I wonder
about my fellow citizens' capacity for sticking to it when we suffer additional
losses, or if the danger seems to recede for a spell. Having spent 30 years
tracking the trajectory of terrorism, I am skeptical of those who promise to
end it. That is not a realistic objective. We face a long, often frustrating
campaign that will demand unwavering resolve, creativity and cold, calm courage.
There will be no Normandy landings to console us. No inexorable liberation
of enemy-held territory. No terrorists will surrender on the decks of a U.S.
battleship. No victory parades. No all-clear signals.
The war on terrorism will have two objectives: we must deal with those who
are directly and indirectly responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and we must
make terrorism an unattractive mode of conflict. The two objectives indicate
different categories of targets -- terrorists and states.
This essay is not the place to discuss specific options. Intelligence efforts
can be intensified. Of course, we need more human sources, but penetrating terrorist
groups is extremely difficult. Efforts to apprehend terrorists through the legal
system will continue. Economic sanctions can be imposed. We may wage psychological
warfare, spread disinformation, support the opponents of our foes. We may employ
conventional military power. We may conduct special operations to capture terrorists,
attack their camps, keep them on the run, disrupt their operations. We have
the capabilities to do all these things. We need a coherent strategy and a dedicated
command, not a committee, to orchestrate them.
We must be prepared for casualties abroad and at home. A criterion of zero
casualties will hobble operations. Americans may be captured and made hostage,
but what happened on Sept. 11 fundamentally changed the equation. Risks of military
casualties must be weighed against the terrible losses we have suffered already
and may yet suffer in future attacks.
The Sept. 11 attacks demonstrated the ability of terrorist organizers to recruit,
train, support and move teams of suicidally dedicated terrorists inside the
United States for more than a year without discovery. We must assume that at
this moment other terrorist teams are deploying or are already in place preparing
to launch new attacks days, months or years from now. It must be our priority
to uncover and prevent these.
The focus on Osama bin Laden makes it in part a personal war. Precedents exist.
Osama bin Laden is not the first individual the United States has made a target
of military operations. In 1989, the United States invaded Panama to overthrow
and apprehend Manuel Antonio Noriega. In 1916, Gen. Pershing led the U.S. army
into Mexico in a futile pursuit of Pancho Villa, who had waged his own war against
To a large extent, Osama bin Laden is our creation. The United States encouraged
and helped him to wage a holy war against the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Its
withdrawal in 1989 temporarily deprived him of a cause, but a year later American
forces landed in Saudi Arabia, giving bin Laden new employment as scourge of
America's presence on holy ground.
In response to his attacks, the rhetoric of American politicians elevated
bin Laden to the status of pre-eminent organizer and financier of international
terrorists, thus sending hundreds of fanatics to his tent. They saw Osama bin
Laden achieving what no Arab leader has ever managed to do. Undeterred by American
power, he attacked U.S. targets with seeming impunity, and with the Sept. 11
attacks, he struck at the very symbols of American economic and military might.
To us, this act of savage madness has aroused America's wrath, which eventually
will bring him down. It doesn't make sense, but bin Laden sees things from his
own perspective. While Arab princes line their pockets and gamble at Monte Carlo,
while the megalomaniac Saddam Hussein endlessly erects huge monuments to himself,
the ascetic bin Laden avenges Arab honor with American blood. Accustomed to
defeat and humiliation, many Arabs rejoice in bin Laden's great "victory."
More recruits pledge themselves to his cause, ready to sacrifice themselves.
More money flows in. His reputation and his resources grow. He will commission
or inspire others to carry out further terrorist attacks, until a terrified
American public obliges its soldiers to come home. Didn't Osama bin Laden and
his colleagues defeat the mighty Soviet Union? With American soldiers gone,
the corrupt regimes that invited them in will collapse. America's hated policies,
its despised ideals of liberty, equality and democracy, its offensive culture
will be swept from Islam. Like his suicide bombers, bin Laden believes that
God will be pleased with his work, and if it pleases God that he not survive,
then a martyr's reward awaits him in paradise.
It is an inspiring vision to many. So long as Osama bin Laden is free, he
will devote his charisma, his organizational skills, his ample funds and his
band of fanatic followers to kill Americans whenever and wherever possible.
Terrorism did not begin with bin Laden and it will not end with his demise,
but the removal of one dangerous leader will help.
It could be a lengthy pursuit. It took nearly two decades to apprehend Carlos,
the overrated terrorist celebrity of the 1970s. Abu Nidal, who to many personified
terrorism in the 1980s, remains at large.
It may be easier to punish the state we accuse of harboring bin Laden. Afghanistan
is a poor country, further impoverished by decades of internal war. Its economy
is precarious. A large portion of its population lives as refugees. Anti-Taliban
forces challenge its government. It has few friends abroad. Increasing Afghanistan's
misery will not be difficult.
A more formal expression of belligerency against terrorist outlaws and those
who assist them enables us to more easily seize the initiative. In the past,
we wanted the terrorists never to feel secure that we might not attack them
a second time. In fact, we never did. The Congressional resolution clearly signals
our intent to attack terrorists when, where, and with methods we choose. It
facilitates covert operations. It creates a requirement for a specific plan
It does not carry any recognition of terrorist outlaws as "privileged
combatants" entitled to treatment as prisoners of war, but we will not mistreat
them. It does not end American efforts to apprehend terrorists through the legal
system where we can count on capable authorities willing to enforce the law.
Where they do not, the United States may take measures to defend itself. Such
a declaration does not oblige the United States to attack every nation identified
as a state sponsor of terrorism. Sensible diplomacy will prevail.
Whatever atavistic emotions the massacres in New York and Washington understandably
have aroused, indiscriminate attacks must be avoided. America's purpose in this
war is defense, not revenge. In an effort to hasten the defeat of dangerous
enemies and bring an end to a long and costly war, we mercilessly bombed cities
in Germany and Japan. Some argue we must be prepared to do the same now, that
we cannot flinch at the full application of military power if that is what it
takes to achieve the worthwhile goal of defeating terrorism.
Our violence must always be measured. Our purpose in World War II was not
the slaughter of civilians, though hundreds of thousands indeed were killed
in the bombing raids. We have the world's sympathy now. Once the action begins,
we cannot expect the world's applause, but we ought not to squander international
support, which we depend on to combat terrorism. And American values must be
Action against terrorists will provoke further violence. But inaction on our
part will not persuade terrorists who have declared war on the United States
to suspend their operations. Either way, terrorist attacks will continue. Therefore,
we must improve our security. The biggest obstacle in the past has been complacency.
It was hard to argue for costly and potentially disruptive security measures
when the danger seemed remote. That has changed. We owe it to the victims to
do a better job.
Obviously, aviation security will be the immediate focus, but it is foolish
to presume that terrorists will do exactly the same thing again. Public surface
transportation, vulnerable portions of the critical infrastructure, other potential
targets must be protected. Other tactics must be considered. The Sept. 11 attacks
demonstrated the willingness of the terrorists to use whatever means they have
available to cause mass casualties. There are no constraints. No weapons can
Will Americans stay the course? We have no choice. Protecting everything is
not possible. Withdrawal is not an option. The defense of our nation directly
depends on our ability to reduce the capability of the terrorists to attack
This time it is different.
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