Terrorists Are Winning
columnist George F. Will is upset, claiming that "The war on terrorism
is suddenly going terribly wrong." He thinks that "more
than six months into the war on terror, terror is more indicated
as a tactic than ever before."
is upset, as are many conservatives and neocons, that the United
States is once again being soft on Yasser Arafat. The fact that
any American diplomat, and especially the president and the vice
president, treats Arafat with any respect at all gets these people
into a predictable lather.
it ever occurs to them, they never mention that one of the reasons
is that the United States government, as it periodically does, believes
it has a holy mission to impose some semblance of settlement on
an apparently intractable dispute (at least in the short term),
so its minions pretty much have to talk to Arafat. The neocons who
generally urge the United States to impose a settlement seem to
think we can do whatever the currently most hawkish elements in
Israel want without ever talking to Arafat.
using the extravagant language "suddenly going terribly wrong" to get into a relatively small aspect of the big picture, however,
Mr. Will has stumbled on a fairly valid point. The war on terrorism
is going terribly wrong, just not in the way he imagines it and
not only in Afghanistan, where the neocon triumphalism of December,
when allied and Northern alliance troops entered Kabul, suddenly
doesn't look especially accurate.
aspect of the war in Afghanistan most certainly including the
recent attack on the caves, where initial failure due to underestimating
the adversary has now been proclaimed a triumph has turned out
to be more difficult and more complicated than the geniuses expected.
more significant than how difficult anything resembling an ultimately
satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan is proving to be, is the mounting
evidence that the terrorists have won. They have achieved what could
be viewed as their realistic objectives perhaps some believe they'll
eventually bring down the Great Satan but one doubts whether Osama
or Mullah Omar really did in stunningly successful fashion.
premise, of course, is that terrorism is a political tactic usually
employed by those with relatively few resources compared to their
chosen adversaries, designed to accomplish certain discrete objectives
on the cheap. While terrorists might have long-range objectives,
like overthrowing the capitalist system (as some of the European
terrorist groups claimed in the 1970s), eliminating Israel, or facilitating
the spread of Islam and the elimination of infidels, they seldom
figure that any one terrorist act will achieve the objective. The
acts have more short-term objectives.
main short-term objective in most cases is being noticed, whether
that means having attention and analysis focused on one's cause
and its justness or historical roots, or simply announcing one's
existence. There might be more specific short-term objectives, like
getting prisoners or hostages released. Terrorists acts are also
designed to sow confusion and fear in a chosen adversary, putting
the "enemy" on notice that his vulnerabilities are being probed
and an attack might come at any time or any place. Ultimately, of
course, a hoped-for objective is to demoralize the other side, to
make them timid or indecisive. But getting the other guys to change
their behavior can be viewed as a victory. And killing some of the
people regarded as enemies or adversaries can be an objective in
some senses, of course, the 9/11 terrorists may have miscalculated.
If they thought the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks would
cripple the economy and/or the U.S. military they were quite mistaken.
And far from demoralizing America, the attacks created a sense of
solidarity among Americans that in some ways has not been evident
since about the 1950s. It is still far too early to make even a
semifinal assessment, but it seems unlikely that the attack will
seriously demoralize the United States or lead to the collapse of
the American system. And I doubt if Osama and the gang expected
as swift and potentially devastating a response as came in Afghanistan.
little question, however, that the terrorists achieved the objective
of getting our attention, of announcing themselves to the world,
of letting it be known that they are the baddest, boldest terrorists
yet. It is quite possible that the atrocities helped recruiting,
as they were no doubt intended to do, although I have no special
knowledge or knowledge I view as reliable, and it may be too early
to assess that aspect anyway. And they killed a lot of people, including
people they no doubt viewed as key players in the economic globalization
of the world, which most religious fundamentalists (not just Islamic)
view as something other than a blessing.
BEHAVIOR, SOWING CONFUSION
most signal successes of the 9/11 terrorists, however, have been
in the realm of changing American behavior. I don't think the terrorists
really attacked America because somebody read the Declaration of
Independence and decided it was high time to stamp out this nonsense
about inalienable rights. But some hostility to the concepts of
freedom and democratic institutions is certainly part of the mix.
And the United States has become less free since the attacks.
idea of individual rights has been subverted, sublimated or downplayed,
and the power of the central state has been upgraded in countless
ways, from the creation of an office of "homeland security" to the
passage of the bogus anti-terrorism bill to the development of military
tribunals to the indefinite imprisonment of foreigners without real
charges to the violation of the Geneva Convention on prisoners of
war to the utter abandonment of any pretense of working to keep
government limited (or, to be utopian, to shrink it) on the part
of the Republican Party. The conservatives are all big-government
considerable confusion, much of which could contain the seeds of
long-term resentment against the system, has been sown. The U.S.
government has panicked more than once, declaring states of emergency
that nobody on the outside can assess due to secrecy and hoarding
of information. The crayola color-code system Tom Ridge just announced
has not clarified anything but made the government more of a laughingstock.
attempt to pin the anthrax messages on Saddam Hussein is almost
certain to backfire and make the government appear more absurd and
less credible. The Bush administration has become the most secretive
and least candid administration since Nixon, reflexively keeping
secrets for no justifiable reason and sowing seeds for future resentment.
All this not only undermines American traditional freedoms, but
ultimately undermines the credibility of the American government.
most recent administrations, this one would no doubt have made plenty
of stupid moves, done things to undermine its own credibility and
demonstrated reflexive distrust of the American people on its own.
But the terrorist attacks have done a great deal to multiply the
number of mistakes that will eventually come back to haunt officials,
and to allow officials to believe that anything is justified in
the name of the war on terror and that mistakes and missteps can
be covered up or hidden. Unless they manage to subvert the still
relatively open American system altogether and convert it to some
neo-totalitarian system, however, they are mistaken. Eventually
the mistakes will be discovered and many of those who made them
will pay dearly.
the single most visible sign of utter failure and panicked, wrongheaded
action is in the area of American security. Anybody who has flown
knows how much more inconvenient and annoying air travel has become,
although most Americans still endure it with sheeplike patience.
But a Transportation Department report was just obtained or leaked
that supposedly shows that in the post-9/11 era the supposedly heightened-alert
screeners missed 30 percent of the guns and 70 percent of the knives
that testers tried to smuggle aboard airplanes.
even with the added inconvenience and, you may be sure, the higher
and spiraling costs now that federal employees are doing the screening passengers still have no reason to have confidence that people
can't smuggle weapons onto planes. As before, the innocents, the
decent people, could find themselves defenseless against some unscrupulous
hijacker. The added security has been virtually useless.
a critical mass of people will begin to rethink the issue, and wonder
why so much money has been spent, so many innocent people have been
inconvenienced or had their privacy violated, so much damage has
been done to the American spirit, in a vain effort to close the
barn door after the horse has escaped. Like governments everywhere,
ours has spent enormously to fight yesterday's battles ineffectively and has not demonstrated just how ineffective its efforts have
suicide hijackings were a shock, unexpected by almost everyone (except
the passengers of Flight 93 who figured things out belatedly but
apparently in time to take some action. But the one thing you can
be almost sure of not absolutely but almost is that the next
terrorist action will not be a carbon copy of 9/11. This is so in
part because surprise is important to effective terrorism and also
because of the actions of those on Flight 93. An attempt at a copycat
action would lead to an attack by passengers, even if they were
unarmed, and reduced chances of success.
suggests that the most effective thing the airlines could have done
to thwart another terrorist attack would have been to check passengers
to make sure they had only those special bullets that don't pierce
the skin of an airliner in their carry-on luggage weapons, and to
issue weapons to those who had forgotten to bring their own.
of course, the government worked even harder to make passengers
helpless, defenseless and dependent, creating enormous inconvenience
and almost bankrupting an industry in the process. They failed to
achieve the objective of catching every nailclipper, but they did
force enormous unnecessary expenditures, increase central government
power, and force passengers to change their behavior.
this must be counted as a success for the terrorists. They have
forced an enormous change in American behavior and attitudes that
will in the long run make the country weaker and probably more vulnerable
to a new kind of attack since so many resources have been wasted
on bound-to-fail airline security.
an insightful piece he did for the Claremont Review of Books, Boston
University Professor Angelo Codevilla in early December argued that
the purpose of a war in a decent civil society is to create the
conditions in which ordinary peaceful pursuits are once again the
order of the day. (He's hardly a pacifist; in his essay he called
for invading Iraq with massive force.) He cited the restrictions
on travel, on access to building and events, which are apparently
slated to be semi-permanent, as evidence that we are losing this
don't change their behavior to something less pleasant and free,
Prof. Codevilla argued. They win and resume their ordinary pursuits
and pleasures, having earned the right to remain free through the
force of arms. The terrorists have forced us not that our government
resisted or did anything other than embrace the opportunity to create
more restrictions on Americans in the name of freedom to change
our behavior in ways that make us less free and less happy on what
looks to be a permanent basis.
me, that looks like the bad guys are winning.
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