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
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
(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
It limits our options. Colin Powell knows this. A lot of people seem
(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.
©Fred Reed 2001. All rights reserved.
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