Our Rage and Frustration: The War Within Us


Sep 16, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on September 16, 2001.

The war against terrorism into which the United States has been plunged is also a frustrating war within us. We hurt, and the hurt turns to rage.

We want to strike back. But rage is no guide to policy. Striking out in rage would make us no better than the terrorists—and ultimately would defeat us.

After Pearl Harbor, we instantly knew the name and address of our enemy. This time, the frustration is compounded because we don't.

The war within us will be all the sharper once we know the enemy—that it's Osama bin Laden, for instance, perhaps with some tactical help from Iran and from the radical Islamic group Al Gama, which has a foothold in Boston.

To us, the perpetrators of last week's events are not rational. Previous terrorists were frightful but had goals. They used terror in pursuit of political objectives. They wanted something.

The new enemies seem to have no understandable objectives we can satisfy or spurn. They want revenge for acts of ours they cannot describe and we would not recognize.

We can imagine flying a plane into a building to kill Hitler. We cannot imagine destroying the World Trade Center to exact revenge on the Great Satan.

Over and over in television interviews, Americans said as much: "I can't believe there are still people in the world who would do this senseless killing."

We can empathize with the Palestinians who have lived for a half-century under Israel's thumb—and boot. But such empathy ends when we see cheering on the streets of Palestine as people watch televised images of the collapse of the World Trade Center.

The frustration in understanding our enemies will soon be followed by frustration in retaliating against them.

President Bush surely was right to say that the United States would no longer make a distinction between terrorists and states that provide them sanctuary. But action is easier threatened than taken.

Pakistan, one nation that has harbored Osama bin Laden, is a longtime U.S. friend that now is at risk of coming apart at the seams. Other U.S. friends in the region, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are terrified of terrorists but are equally terrified of the potential backlash among their people if the United States turns terrorists into martyrs.

And so we are back to frustrated rage. The war within us will go on for weeks, trying our patience and our nerves. If we are not to squander the high ground, we will have to build a case against those who turn out to be our enemies, and then build a broad coalition to punish them. Neither task is easy.

Last time around, after bin Laden struck our embassies in Africa in 1998, we opted for what Pentagon officials call "T-LAM therapy"—that is, cruise missile (T-LAM) attacks—on Sudan and Afghanistan. Nothing so antiseptic will do this time around, for this is war, not disciplining a miscreant. And winning the other war—the war within us—requires that we stay very tightly focused on those people who are our enemies.

If our response appears indiscriminate, we lose. In 1998, we managed to look both feckless and foolish.

Again and again since Tuesday, it has been said that we have entered a new world. Maybe not. If a year from now, Tuesday's terrorism has, in the world's mind, become as isolated an event as the Oklahoma City bombing now seems, Americans may return to old practices. They may decide security is not worth spending several hours to board a short domestic flight.

The terror scenarios conjured up by people like me, whose business is strategy, have included planes used as flying Molotov cocktails. The tactic may have been part of the plans of those who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993.

What was astonishing this time was the terrorists' ability to pull it off four times in an hour, in coordinated efforts in three different airports. Even those of us who conjured the flying Molotov-cocktail scenario did not quite believe any terrorists could really do it.

That is another connection to Pearl Harbor. We did not believe that Japan could or would do such a thing, and so we were slow to comprehend the signals that it might.

The terrorists' success this time suggests we have not seen the last of their diabolical capabilities. They have won this round. They may win the next, though we surely will be better prepared then. But they cannot win many rounds, for they know their own history better than they understand ours.

Their terror has roused us from the pleasant torpor of easy invincibility, and they will regret it. They can win the larger war only if we lose the war within us, only if they succeed at goading us into fighting on their terms—at home or abroad.

Gregory F. Treverton, an analyst with RAND, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Council on International Policy. His latest book, Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

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