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Responding to Terror: No Good Choices

by Daniel Szechi on Sep 20, 2001

Daniel Szechi

In its brutality and horror, the World Trade Center attack of September 11 outmatched Pearl Harbor. Because it did so, our grief and anger are settling into a cold rage against whoever committed the atrocity and those who may be sheltering the perpetrators’ accomplices and families.

But what must now be done? This is the question transfixing the government and being debated by the rest of society.

On one side are the advocates of quick, decisive and massive retaliation. If, as seems increasingly likely, Osama bin Laden and his followers were the primary actors, these Americans favor the wholesale extermination of the terrorists. Killing bin Laden and his men, and devastating what is left of Afghanistan’s infrastructure of roads, power grid and water lines would be both satisfying and serve as a salutary lesson to those who might contemplate such acts in the future.

Recent history suggests, however, that even massive retaliation will not finish such a war and that the impact of waging a campaign of unbridled violence may have unhappy repercussions for U.S. democracy. The French pursued a policy of massive retaliation in Algeria during the anti-colonial revolution spearheaded by the National Liberation Front (FLN) from 1954 to 1960. Hundreds of thousands of Muslim Algerians were killed in reprisals and other operations. But the bloodshed did not end the war, and it brutalized and politicized the French army. After two attempts by that army to seize power, the war was finally ended by a precipitate French retreat from North Africa.

On the other side of the argument about what we are to do are those who advise caution. They argue that if we attack Afghanistan for any reason we will antagonize the Muslim world, to say nothing of creating new recruits for bin Laden’s terrorist organization (or its successors) in the wake of the inevitable collateral damage (i.e., the death of Afghan civilians) that our attacks will cause. We will be sowing the wind and will reap the whirlwind.

Unfortunately, recent history also suggests that a policy of restraint or inaction could have unhappy repercussions. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the government of Uruguay — until then regarded as the Switzerland of Latin America — proved, through inaction, incapable of stemming the campaign of terrorism waged by the leftist Tupamaros guerrilla movement. The Uruguayan public became alienated and desperate, the state’s finances and institutions virtually collapsed, and Uruguayan democracy was eventually overthrown by the military with the tacit support of the majority of the Uruguayan people.

The problem is that both sides in the current raging debate have a valid point. Without doubt a massive and bloody air assault on Afghanistan would awe the world and quite probably deter other states from supporting the likes of bin Laden in the future. Equally certainly it would outrage a portion of Muslim opinion worldwide, drawing many Muslims into vocal and effective support for bin Laden and his kind. In that case, were Muslim states no longer willing to shelter terrorists, they would simply operate clandestinely and strike at the United States and its  interests wherever and whenever they could.

Ultimately there are no right choices in such a situation. By taking the aggressive and militaristic approach, we will certainly transform a minority of disapproving, but not yet hostile, Muslims into active foes of the United States. By doing nothing we invite repetition of the events of last Tuesday and even their escalation by a jubilant and increasingly confident enemy.

Bin Laden and other terrorist leaders have been detected sounding out the possibilities of securing nuclear weapons. At what point should we retaliate? When a million die in Boston or Seattle from a nuclear blast? The same dilemma will apply whether the United States is looking for a way of avenging the deaths of five thousand or five million of its citizens.

Ultimately, the overriding reason for having a state at all is that only a sovereign state has the power to maintain internal peace and protect its citizens against external foes. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes recognized this central truth in the 17th century. But what happens when a state fails to do its job? Hobbes had no doubts: at that point its citizens would have every right to seek protection by any means from any available source.

Which confronts the United States with stark alternatives. To act at all will put us on the road to a long and bitter conflict whose outcome and consequences no one can predict. But noble restraint will not prevent further attacks upon the United States and may well undermine U.S. democracy in the long run. Damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. May as well go down swinging.

Daniel Szechi is a professor of history at Auburn University and a writer for the History News Service.