Because bin Laden or someone else has done us irreparable harm, people, or some people anyway, spend much air in calling him, or them, cowards, criminals, and mere terrorists. No doubt this is satisfying. Yet it also serves to diminish a very dangerous enemy. In times of national enthusiasm it is hazardous to go against the prevailing winds. Let’s do it anyway.
A few thoughts:
(1) Our enemies are not mere anything. They have demonstrated that with a $2 box-cutter and an airliner full of fuel ($250 from any travel discounter: good price for a 757) you can do damage hitherto possible only with sustained attacks by heavy bombers. They’ve mangled the stock market, humiliated the United States, seem to be putting airlines out of business, cost hotels billions, grounded our crop-dusters, caused massive lay-offs, and seem to be, because of the stock market, about to keep a lot of kids from going to college. They have also frightened the country permanently. They may well turn us into a semi-police state, and have certainly caused us to go into a war of indeterminable outcome.
All this for, presumably, under a thousand dollars. It is probably the best return on investment in military history.
(2) Their crucial realization was that a vehicle is not a target, but a weapon. The effect is to increase the possible damage from an attack to levels that a nation cannot ignore. Previous efforts by terrorists, such as blowing up an airliner, in national terms constituted no more than annoyances. Modifying a skyline and killing 7000 people cannot be brushed off.
Vehicles are formidable weapons. How many ships would have to ram the supports of the Golden Gate at high speed to bring it down? What clever things might be done with a tanker? Big ones today amount to positively enormous bladders of aimable petroleum. Many sail under foreign flags.
The rub is that we cannot do without vehicles. This means, for example, that when Congress is being addressed by the president, enormously powerful weapons will be flying into Dulles in large numbers. It only takes one.
(3) The damage possible with ships and aircraft changes the problem of security qualitatively, not quantitatively. In the past, security could be treated statistically: If an airliner were lost every three or four years, it wasn’t good, but it was good enough. Civil society continued. The economy didn’t collapse. Life went on. Preventing most hijackings was adequate.
Today, if we discourage 19 attempts, and the twentieth takes out the Capitol, we will have lost.
(4) We don’t know how to attack a small group of terrorists not clearly attached to a specific country. This too is crucial. If Libya had destroyed the Trade Center, we would have had the answer, and Libya knows it. So it didn’t. But if one Guatemalan, an Irishman, a disaffected American, and a Russian blow up the Capitol — do we nuke Ireland, Guatemala, ourselves, and Russia?
The key to defeating a more powerful enemy is to force him to fight in a manner that prevents use of his strengths. This the terrorists are doing.
(5) Increased electronic surveillance by the spook agencies probably isn’t an answer. The plotting needed to take over a freighter and run it into a bridge can be done by three guys on a park bench. No? Terrorists with the intelligence of grapes know that cell phones can be intercepted, that the Internet can be watched, encryption recognized and possibly cracked. So, I presume, they just won’t use them.
(6) In the coming war, how will we know when we have won? Killing bin Laden, it seems to me, would merely make a martyr of him. The assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Che Guevara served chiefly to raise their stature. A trial would be a platform. He would become, if he isn’t already, the Elvis of terrorists.
(7) I do not think Bush and Powell are stupid, don’t know what they have planned, certainly hope that it works, and don’t have a better idea. This is in itself an important point: It is tactically astute to leave your enemy with no good answers. That’s where we seem to be.
Afghanistan is far away, supply lines long, airpower of limited use against a primitive lightly populated society, the number of our deployable troops small, our coalition fragile, the terrain awful, the Afghans ferocious. They’ll skin you this week and leave you to die the next, and regularly did. In two decades of covering the military, I have met several of their leaders. They were very, very hard men. Ask the Russians.
It limits our options. Colin Powell knows this. A lot of people seem not to.
(8) Maybe the surge of national unity will hold for a while. Maybe it won’t. I have recently heard polls saying that 69% of the public is willing to prosecute the war even if it means taking casualties, and that 65% are afraid to fly in airliners. The conjunction of statistics is fascinating. Presumably the people afraid to fly in airliners are willing that other people should take casualties.
Few are fiercer than the recently patriotic, but . . . for how long? Already I see signs on telephone poles saying, “Retaliate with World Peace.” Sure, kids are probably doing it, and this is Washington. But it’s a good bet that the bad guys will try to turn whatever we do into a long, slow grind with dead people coming home, the theory being that we would then quit. Can they? I don’t know.
(9) If we attack Afghanistan, and something similar to New York happens in response, then what? Bin Laden and I don’t hang out together at the sports bar, so I don’t know what he has in mind. But if he can pull off something spectacular in return, he will be seen as single-handedly defeating the United States. Then what? How much would we take? For how long? And what would we do about it?
(10) This could get lots uglier. I’m not an Islamicist. I have friends who are. They point out that Pakistan is unstable. If it falls into chaos, they say, as the stress of helping us will encourage, and some of its nukes disappear with their arming codes or whatever, one might show up in New York, bang. This is no longer morbid fantasy. These guys would do it. At that point the United States would likely say the hell with it and eliminate countries.
Not good. Not good at all. But why is it not possible?
All done with simple box-cutters. Remarkable.
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