This Time It Is Different


Sep 16, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on September 16, 2001.

The attacks of Sept. 11 have no precedent in the annals of terrorism. The death toll will vastly exceed the number killed on Dec. 7, 1941. It could approach the number of persons killed in the London Blitz. This is the carnage of war. We have crossed a threshold.

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 out.

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 Americans.

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 of action.

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 preserved.

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 be excluded.

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 us.

This time it is different.

Jenkins a former captain in the Army Special forces, is an authority on terrorism and international crime. He is the senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp.

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