The terrorist’s most effective weapons are not bombs and guns or even the knives and airplanes that were used in Tuesday’s attack. The terrorist’s real arsenal is fear, confusion, anger, and paranoia. Effective terrorists know psychology and sociology — human nature — even better than they know ordnance. Tuesday’s atrocities have been called an act of war and compared to Pearl Harbor. It is a comparison which the perpetrators of the attack must have anticipated.
Anyone tactically brilliant enough to hijack four planes simultaneously and turn them into living bombs is going to be equally brilliant strategically and will understand what the reaction to his actions will be. The strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were not intended to get America out of the Middle East, they were intended to get America into war.
Whenever Americans have been attacked abroad a familiar pattern has emerged. The American people will not accept casualties. Vietnam demonstrated this, as did Somalia, as did NATO’s operations in Serbia which were designed to avoid American casualties at all costs. When Americans are killed abroad, Americans at home respond by demanding to "bring our boys back home" and by questioning the propriety of our activities abroad.
The American character has always been deeply skeptical of foreign entanglements. Just consider George Washington’s famous farewell address. So great is this popular "isolationism" that there’s only one reliable way to defeat it — attack America at home. Pearl Harbor is the proof. America would not have entered World War II without being attacked first. Even Franklin Delano Roosevelet, who greatly wanted to enter the war, had had to promise during his 1940 campaign that America would not get in, unless attacked at home.
Is it reasonable to think that Osama bin Laden or anyone else would kill thousands of Americans on American soil without considering the consequences? Terrorists look at a big picture. They have to understand how their actions, which serve no immediate military purpose, can affect their enemy. The terrorists behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Tuesday knew what the reaction would be. They were too smart not to.
The Islamic World is sharply divided along several lines, between "moderates" and "extremists" as well as Sunnis and Shi’ites. On top of that the usual internal power plays go on behind the scenes of Islamic countries as much as anywhere else. There’s good reason to think that lust for power is at work here at least as much as ideology. There is, for example, a faction of the Saudi royal family which is more hard-line than King Fahd and would like to replace him. Whether this faction is really ideologically anti-American or simply sees anti-Americanism as a tool to use against Fahd is irrelevant. It’s worth remembering that Osama bin Laden, for all the talk about his ties to the Taliban, has ties to his native Saudi Arabia too.
The Taliban have good reason not to provoke the US. They are still fighting a civil war for control of Afghanistan. They stand to lose everything if the US and our "friends" the Russians get involved. But it’s easier to shoot a more cruise missiles at Kabul than to risk antagonizing "friends" like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
If Osama bin Laden is behind this — and really it must go far beyond one man, however wealthy he may be — then what he expects to accomplish is clear. He wants to polarize the Islamic world, and indeed the whole world. Whoever is behind this wants America to react by going to war, which will put pressure on hard-line factions throughout the Middle East and Central Asia to side with the anti-Americans, even if they would prefer to remain neutral.
War will exert pressure on regimes like Kind Fahd’s to distance themselves from America, in trade as much as militarily, and to become more amenable to hard-line factions within their borders or else face internal revolt. By polarizing the Islamic world what the Osama bin Ladens of the world really achieve is to enhance their factional power. In order to work, however, America must act precipitously against the Islamic world in general, and one or two scapegoats in particular. The bigger America’s reaction the better chance bin Laden has of succeeding, and of course to provoke a really big reaction he had to commit an extraordinarily great atrocity. He has done his part and now he expects us to do ours.
We must not let the terrorists outsmart us. We must not react the way they want us to. Let’s think before we react. How would bringing back the draft, as Stanley Kurtz has opportunistically urged, prevent this? How will beefing up airport security stop terrorists armed only with razors and the bluff of having a bomb? How will "troops on the ground," presumably in Afghanistan, solve anything — did it work for the Soviets in 1979?
A committed terrorist will always be able to kill innocent people, to fulfill his tactical objective. But terrorism will fail in its strategic objective if we do not react as expected. If we do not do what the terrorists want they will have failed in their mission and will have that much less reason to expect terrorism to work in the future.
The terrorists behind Tuesday’s attack want war. By all means we should punish those directly involved, but we must not give them the war they want. These terrorists have attempted to discredit the peace party in the Islamic world, to polarize that civilization for the advantage of the war party. The peace party in America must stand firm in the face of both the terror and of accusations of disloyalty from our own countrymen. That is what will foil the ambitions of the terrorists whose real goal is war and the power that war always brings to the wicked.
Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.